Verbiage? No Way!

Verbiage is often pronounced – mispronounced – to nearly rhyme with garbage, something with which it has a bit in common.

Hold onto your hats. Here comes another language-related rant. This one’s about the widespread misuse and mispronunciation of the word verbiage.

I can’t tell you how many times, as a writer, I’ve been asked to produce “some verbiage” about a topic.

  • Give me some verbiage to the effect that XYZ should be protected
  • Could you insert some verbiage saying that a person must be X years old?
  • I’m wondering if you could generate some verbiage about …
  • Can you make it reflect our current verbiage about XYZ policies?

The people innocently making these requests think they’re asking me to write some text, “content” or copy (i.e., what journalists and PR and advertising people call written material) on a subject. But whenever I hear it expressed as a request for verbiage, I cringe.

Why? Because verbiage is not a synonym for text, copy, content or wording. So what does it mean? Let’s flip open three great dictionaries to find out:

  • Oxford: “excessively lengthy or technical speech or writing
  • Webster’s New World College Dictionary – “an excess of words beyond those needed to express concisely what is meant; wordiness
  • American Heritage: “an excess of words for the purpose; wordiness

The word comes from the 18th-century French verbier, meaning “to chatter.”

When I’m asked to explain what verbiage actually means, I say simply “verbosity, an inoffensive word for what amounts to verbal garbage.”

My politically incorrect definition is not coincidental since, when I get a spoken request for verbiage, I often hear it mispronounced as VER-bij, a near rhyme with garbage. The correct pronunciation is VER-bee-uj, which the spelling ought to give away.

The takeaway: Pen-for-Rent will never give you verbiage! I will, however, repair it, shorten it or replace it with something better.

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