Gibberish, also called jibber-jabber or gobbledygook, is speech that is (or appears to be) nonsense. It may include speech sounds that are not actual words, pseudowords, or language games and specialized jargon that seems nonsensical to outsiders.
"Gibberish" is also used as an imprecation to denigrate or tar ideas or opinions the user disagrees with or finds irksome, a rough equivalent of "nonsense", "folderol", or "claptrap". The implication is that the criticized expression or proposition lacks substance or congruence, as opposed to simply being a differing view.
The related word jibber-jabber refers to rapid talk that is difficult to understand.
The etymology of gibberish is uncertain. The term was first seen in English in the early 16th century. It is generally thought to be an onomatopoeia imitative of speech, similar to the words jabber (to talk rapidly) and gibber (to speak inarticulately).
It may originate from the word jib, which is the Angloromani variant of the Romani language word meaning "language" or "tongue". To non-speakers, the Anglo-Romany dialect could sound like English mixed with nonsense words, and if those seemingly-nonsensical words are referred to as jib then the term gibberish (pronounced "jibberish") could be derived as a descriptor for nonsensical speech.
Samuel Johnson, in A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, wrote that the word gibberish "is probably derived from the chymical cant, and originally implied the jargon of Geber and his tribe." The theory was that gibberish came from the name of a famous 8th century Muslim alchemist, Jābir ibn Hayyān, whose name was Latinized as Geber. Thus, gibberish was a reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon and allegorical coded language used by Jabir and other alchemists. After 1818, editors of Johnson's Dictionary rejected that origin theory.
A discredited alternative theory asserts that it is derived from the Irish word gob or gab ("mouth") or from the Irish phrase Geab ar ais ("back talk, backward chat"). The latter Irish etymology was suggested by Daniel Cassidy, whose work has been criticised by linguists and scholars. The terms geab and geabaire are certainly Irish words, but the phrase geab ar ais does not exist, and the word gibberish exists as a loan-word in Irish as gibiris.
The term gobbledygook was coined by Maury Maverick, a former congressman from Texas and former mayor of San Antonio. When Maverick was chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation during World War II, he sent a memorandum that said: "Be short and use plain English. ... Stay off gobbledygook language." Maverick defined gobbledygook as "talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague, involved, usually with Latinized words." The allusion was to a turkey, "always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity."
The term "gobbledygook" has a long history of use in politics to deride deliberately obscure statements and complicated but ineffective explanations. The following are a few examples:
- Nixon's Oval Office tape from June 14, 1971, showed H. R. Haldeman describing a situation to Nixon as "... a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say."
- President Ronald Reagan explained tax law revisions in an address to the nation with the word, May 28, 1985, saying that "most didn’t improve the system; they made it more like Washington itself: Complicated, unfair, cluttered with gobbledygook and loopholes, designed for those with the power and influence to hire high-priced legal and tax advisers."
- United States Supreme Court justice John Roberts dismissed quantitative sociological reasoning as "gobbledygook" in 2017, when arguing against using any mathematical test for gerrymandering.
- Michael Shanks, former chairman to the National Consumer Council of Great Britain, characterized professional gobbledygook as sloppy jargon intended to confuse nonspecialists: "'Gobbledygook' may indicate a failure to think clearly, a contempt for one's clients, or more probably a mixture of both. A system that can't or won't communicate is not a safe basis for a democracy."[unreliable source?]
The Italian musical artist Adriano Celentano wrote and performed the song "Prisencolinensinainciusol" in gibberish as an intentional mimic of the sound of American English to those who are not fluent in the language.
Other terms and usage
The terms officialese or bureaucratese refer to language used by officials or authorities. Legalese is a closely related concept, referring to language used by lawyers, legislators, and others involved with the law. The language used in these fields may contain complex sentences and specialized jargon or buzzwords, making it difficult for those outside the field to understand. Speakers or writers of officialese or legalese may recognize that it is confusing or even meaningless to outsiders, but view its use as appropriate within their organization or group.
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- Laycock, D. (1972). "Towards a typology of ludlings, or play-languages". Linguistic Communications: Working Papers of the Linguistic Society of Australia. 6: 61–113.
- Stevenson, Angus; Lindberg, Christine A. (2010). "jibber-jabber". New Oxford American Dictionary. Oxford University Press USA. ISBN 978-0-19-539288-3.
- Chantrell, Glynnis (2002). The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. pp. 231. ISBN 0-19-863121-9.
- "gibberish". Oxford English Dictionary (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2013.
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- Leland, Charles G. (1873). The English Gipsies and Their Language. New York: Hurd and Houghton. p. 88.
If the word gibberish was, as has been asserted, first applied to the language of the Gipsies, it may have been derived either from “Gip,” the nickname for Gipsy, with ish or rish appended as in Engl-ish, I-rish, or from the Rommany word jib signifying a language. . . . Writers on such subjects err, almost without an exception, in insisting on one accurately defined and singly derived source for every word, when perhaps three or four have combined to form it. . . . Gibberish may have come from the Gipsy, and at the same time owe something to gabble, jabber, and the old Norse or Icelandic gifra.
- Seaborg, Glenn T. (March 1980). "Our heritage of the elements". Metallurgical and Materials Transactions B. Springer Boston. 11 (1): 5–19. Bibcode:1980MTB....11....5S. doi:10.1007/bf02657166. S2CID 137614510.
- Jack, Albert (2011). It's a Wonderful Word: The Real Origins of Our Favourite Words. London, UK: Random House UK. ISBN 978-1847946690.
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- Amr, Samir S.; Tbakhi, Abdelghani (2007). "Jabir ibn Hayyan". Annals of Saudi Medicine. 27 (1): 52–53. doi:10.5144/0256-4947.2007.53. PMC 6077026.
- Kolb, Gwin J.; Demaria, Robert, Jr. (1998). "Dr. Johnson's etymology of 'gibberish'". The Free Library. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
This remark was apparently repeated in all the unabridged versions of Johnson's Dictionary until 1818, when H. J. Todd published his revised edition of the work. Under the entry for gibberish, Todd records 'Dr. Johnson's' comments on the word's etymology and then offers evidence differing from Johnson's surmise and none supporting it.
- Mackay, Charles (1887). A Glossary of Obscure Words and Phrases in the Writings of Shakspeare and his contemporaries Traced Etymologically to the ancient language of the British people as spoken before the irruption of the Danes and Saxons. S. Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington. pp. 183–184. Retrieved 5 February 2014.
- Cassidy, Daniel (2007). "A Dictionary of Irish-American Vernacular". How the Irish Invented Slang: The secret language of the crossroads. CounterPunch. pp. 155–156. ISBN 978-1-904859-60-4.
- Brady, Michael Patrick (17 October 2007). "How the Irish Invented Slang". PopMatters. Retrieved 24 March 2014.
- Barrett, Grant (9 November 2007). "Humdinger of a Bad Irish Scholar". Archived from the original on 2013-09-27. Retrieved 2014-03-24.
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- Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. An Gúm. 1992. p. 630. ISBN 978-1-85791-037-7.
- Maverick and Gobbledygook (minicast) (audio). A Way with Words. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
- Maverick, Maury (24 March 1944). "Memorandum from Maury Maverick to Everybody in Smaller War Plants Corporation". The National Archives Catalog. US National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
Subject: Lengthy memoranda and gobbledygook language. Be short and use plain English.
- "Gobbledygook? Lay off it, Maverick says". Pittsburgh Press. 31 March 1944. Retrieved 4 February 2014.
- Maverick, Maury (21 May 1944). "The case against 'Gobbledygook'". The New York Times. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
People asked me how I got the word. I do not know. It must have come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook.
- Gartner, Michael (26 May 1985). "Gobbledygood". Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved 4 February 2014.[permanent dead link]
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- Spolin, Viola (1999). Improvisation for the Theater: A handbook of teaching and directing techniques (3rd ed.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0810140098.
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