By Anatoly Liberman
Gibberish is an undignified word, and this is the reason we have difficulties in discovering its origin. Popular culture, be it Greek, Roman, Rabelaisian, or contemporary, produces hundreds of slangy words and expressions that arise and flourish on the rich garbage of human creativity but whose roots (which, as just pointed out, should be sought in the dung) interweave with the roots of their neighbors and avoid deep layers. The sun shines on them, the roots dry up, but, contrary to expectation, the flowers survive.
No citations of gibberish predate 1554, a noun that has also been recorded with e in the first syllable (gebberish) and –dge at the end (gibberidge). I have highlighted a noun, because gibberish resembles an adjective (compare bookish, childish) and makes one think of the names of languages (Danish, Swedish, etc.).The other variants can be passed over in silence, except for guibbridge (a 17-century form), which indicates the pronunciation with so-called hard g, that is, with g as in give. Although one hears a lot of gibberish, especially in Academia and politics, the word gibberish has low frequency in conversation. However, I will probably not err if I state that the prevailing, perhaps the only, pronunciation of this word in to-day’s American English is with initial j. Evidently, this has not always been so. Skeat, an Englishman who died in 1912, was not aware of gibberish ever having j-. In the middle of the 20th century, Daniel Jones, the author of the most important pronouncing dictionary of British English, listed the variant with j– as rare. The second edition of The Century Dictionary (1911), an American reference work, also favored hard g-. By contrast, Henry Cecil Wyld, an Englishman who was contemptuous of vulgarisms, gave gibberish with j– in his 1932 dictionary. The evidence is confusing, but we may assume that when gibberish arose, g– was more usual in it. This circumstance drives a wedge between it and the verb jibber. Besides, jibber was first recorded in 1824, and if at that time gibberish had a variant with j-, jibber should be looked upon as a back formation on gibberish rather than its etymon. To be sure, a word like jibber may exist for many years before it makes its way into print, but a gap of nearly four centuries of unrecorded history between jibber and gibberish is unbridgeable even for slang. The variant with –dge is trivial: final (-i)sh often alternates with (-i)dge. An anthologized example is Greenwich, but there are many others, such as hodgepodge, a doublet of hotchpotch.
The oldest conjectures on the origin of gibberish still hold, at least up to a point. These are the facts relevant to our discussion. Firstly, we notice that gibberish is surrounded by a considerable number of words like gibber, jibber, jabber, gab (the latter as in the gift of the gab), and gobble, all of which refer to rapid chatter. Icelandic synonyms of gibber have similar structure and belong to the extended jibber-jabber family outside the British Isles. In the 1882 edition of his etymological dictionary, Skeat went so far as to reconstruct gab- or gap- (as in the verb gape) “mouth.” Later he did not return to his bold idea. Secondly, several Old French words resemble their English look-alikes and also have the same meaning. Skinner, whose English etymological dictionary appeared in 1671, derived gibberish from French gaber “to cheat.”
Both observations—on the similarity between gibberish and gab– ~ gib– words and on the French connection—are right. It is therefore possible that we are dealing with loanwords (whatever the direction of borrowing) or with a sound symbolic formation common to Germanic and Romance. The “protoword” gab or gap is unlikely. Here I would like to mention the contributions of Braune, a celebrated German linguist. I usually don’t clutter my posts with references, but there are weighty reasons why this time I will act differently. Braune published a series of articles on the Germanic element in the Romance languages. They appeared in a major journal devoted to Romance philology, and, although the journal was published in Germany and in German, Germanic scholars, unless they study the etymology of French, Spanish, or Italian, have an insufficient knowledge of them. The number of references to those articles was not overwhelming even in Braune’s lifetime (1850-1926; obviously, he did not begin to publish in 1850). I ran into them because I made an effort to screen all the philological journals devoted to Indo-European and would now like others to profit by the results of my discovery. Another reason for mentioning Braune is that he was a confirmed Bunburyist—a rare case in serious scholarship. Those who are not sure what Bunburyist means should reread the opening scenes of The Importance of Being Earnest. The gist of the matter is that the grand old man signed his Germanic works “Wilhelm Braune,” while his Romance articles appeared under the name of Theodor Braune. I realize that authors do not care about the plight of bibliographers, but this was a nasty trick on the part of someone whose full name was Theodor Wilhelm Braune.
To return to gibberish: T.W. Braune had no doubt that the lending language was Germanic. He was probably right, for the Germanic gib-gab family is larger and more ramified than its Romance counterpart. The words mentioned above may have constituted part of international slang, with Germany being a likely center of dissemination. Leo Spitzer thought that gibberish was a borrowing of French dialectal aguibreé “a dull, mind boggling thing.” Since he did not reconstruct the ways of penetration, his hypothesis cannot be of much interest. Nothing testifies to early contacts between the vernacular of Anjou by Verrier, where aguibreé occurs, and 16th-century English.
Gibberish, pronounced as jibberish, is better suited for denoting nonsense than gibberish with hard g, because, in English, j often has an expressive function. This is true, regardless of whether it stands at the beginning or at the end of a word. Here is a fraction of a much longer list: budge, grudge, drudge, dodge; jab, jaunt, jog, jaunt, jitter, jinks. Most of these words are of unknown or of uncertain origin. Gibberish (with j-) is in good company, if grudge, drudge, and jitter can be called such.
Unlike Skinner and those who came after him, Samuel Johnson believed that gibberish should be traced to the name of Geber, an 8th-century chemist. Apparently, people looked on Geber’s technical jargon as incomprehensible to outsiders (as though every unschooled person is expected to understand chemistry or even literary criticism!). Johnson’s etymologies were never original. Thanks to the research by Gwin J. Kolb and Robert DeMaria Jr (Notes and Queries 243, 1998, 72-74), we know where Johnson found his idea and can dismiss it as untenable. Gibberish is certainly not a derivative of a proper name. It is a sound symbolic or sound imitative formation imitating prattle, but the details of its history remain unclear. The suffix –ish has never been accounted for; if it was added to gibber, one wonders why no early record of this verb has come down to us. Also, no other word designating prattle, babble, chatter, and other kinds of nonsensical talk ends in –ish. Was gibberish associated with some specific jargon? If it was, no traces of it are extant in our texts. Perhaps there once was a Franconian word (let us say, gibber, a noun) that reached the language of the speakers of Old French. In French it retained its original meaning but added a suffix and later returned to English with other words ending in -s ~ sh, such as finis ~ finish and skirmish. The French form could have begun with gi– (spelled gui-) or ji– (spelled gi-). This is a good fantasy. Unfortunately, too few of its elements have been documented. The current hypotheses are more solid but not wholly convincing because so far no light has fallen on the cause of the word’s unstable pronunciation or on the social milieu in which it was coined. The truth, as Algernon said in Oscar Wilde’s play, is rarely pure and never simple.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”