Printable Version
Pronunciation: gahr-bêl Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb

Meaning: 1. To distort a meaning of a communication (speech, writing, broadcast) in such a way to confuse comprehension. 2. (Obsolete) To cull, remove husks, dust, or soil; sift out the undesirable, pick out the desirable.

Notes: All the derivations from this word are based on the second, obsolete meaning. A garbler was someone who inspected commodities like grains to assure their cleanliness. Garblage was the refuse from garbling in the second sense and garbleable referred to the ability to be garbled in that sense. The family of this word in the first sense is limited to the use of the present participle, garbling, as an adjective or noun.

In Play: The new sense of garble may refer to writing: "The proposal in your last text message was garbled between your smartphone and mine." It just as handily refers to speech: "Harvey Wallbanger was so drunk after the party that his directions to his house were just garbled nonsense."

Word History: Today's Good Word comes directly from Latin garbellare "to sift", which picked it up from Arabic gharbala "sift", at the height of the spice trade. The best guess is that Arabic snitched it from late Latin cribellare "to sieve", from Latin cribrum "sieve", a word widespread among Mediterranean traders. Cribrum came from PIE krei- "to sieve", source also of Greek krinein "to sift, separate", and Irish and Scots Gaelic criathar "sieve". English certain was borrowed from the Old French word, based on the Latin verb cernere "to distinguish, sift, separate", from the same source with metathesis. The shift in the meaning of garble from "cull" to "distort" may have been triggered by a confusion with garbage. It may have resulted from the use of the word to refer to the refuse remaining after garbling in the obsolete sense. (Now let's welcome back Mike Nichols with a thank-you for an ungarbled recommendation of today's spicy Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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