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Verbigeration

Pronounced /vəˈbɪdʒəreɪʃn/Help with pronunciation

The American actor, musician, and author John Lithgow remarked in a newspaper interview in February 2015 that verbigeration was his current favourite word. Though it describes the use of words, the concern of any actor or writer, Mr Lithgow would surely not wish it to be applied to himself.

One might guess that it refers to the bigging up of verbs, though it’s actually said with a soft g, like refrigeration. The association isn’t altogether wrong, as it refers to the involuntary repetition of meaningless words and phrases. The psychiatrist Bernard Glueck described it in 1916 as “senseless word salad”. Another writer, G Stanley Hall, in a work ten years earlier with the off-putting title Youth: Its Education, Regimen, and Hygiene, preferred to define it as “The continual utterance of certain words or phrases at short intervals, without reference to their meaning.” It has been regarded as a symptom of a mental disorder, though we in the UK, currently in the run-up to a general election, may feel it could be used to describe certain British political figures.

Its source is Latin, verbum, a word (also the source of verbiage), plus the verb gerĕre, to carry on or conduct, from which derived the Latin verb verbigerāre to talk or chat. An isolated early appearance of verbigeration in English was in the dictionary Glossographia in 1656; Thomas Blount, who compiled it, defined it in this neutral Latin sense. However, nobody else bothered with it until it was reinvented late in the nineteenth century by the British physician Daniel Hack Tuke. It was never popular and was soon after replaced by palilalia, taken instead from Greek: palin, again, plus lalia, talk or speech. There’s also echolalia, from the same root, which is similarly involuntary repetition, but of the words of another person.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 14 Feb. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 14 February 2015.