babel babble

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Dec 14 17:26:18 UTC 2006

On Dec 14, 2006, at 8:44 AM, Michael Covarrubias wrote:

> When announcing the Golden Globe nominations Matt Perry pronounced
> the movie
> "Babel" as "babble."
> OED doesn't list this pronunciation though M-W and American
> Heritage give it
> second listing.
> AHD includes the meaning of confusion and noise as a different
> entry (not
> capitalized) with the 'babble' pronunciation listed first.  It
> traces the
> etymology to the place name.
> The OED lists this meaning under the Babel, obviously with the same
> single
> pronunciation.
> Is this is a persistent false-friend pronunciation: an apparent
> belief that
> Babel is related etymologically to 'babble'?
> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

oh dear, this belongs in the ecdb, but it's very difficult to write
up.  here's what chris waigl and i said on soc.motss in august 2005,
in response to the suggestion that one of these words is historically
derived from the other:

[AZ, 8/28/05]

in a word, no.  "babble" is onomatopoetic, and came into english
probably from dutch, possibly through french. (there's an obsolete
spelling "babel" of "babble", which i assume is irrelevant here.)
"Babel" is a hebrew place name; british dictionaries, like the OED,
give only the pronunciation with "long a" (as in "babe") for this
word, while at least some american dictionaries, like AHD4, give a
variant pronunciation with "short a" (as in "Babs"), which is a
homophone of "babble".  my guess is that the development of the
short-a variant was indeed influenced by "babble", thanks to the
overlap in meaning.

"Babel" (sometimes in a lower-case variant "babel") has been around in
english for about 500 years in the meaning 'a confused turbulent
medley of sounds'; the OED has cites from 1529.  this makes things
like "the babel and the rail noise" (from a speaker of american
english) hard to interpret: is "babel" here the 'turbulent medley'
word (historically derived from "Babel"), or is it an eggcorn for
the homophone "babble"?

meanwhile, a comment by Nigel Pond in the eggcorn database --
reports "Tower of Babble" as almost mainstream in the u.s., but not in
the u.k., not surprisingly given the observations about pronunciation
above. (the first time pond heard it was when he moved to the u.s. in
1995.)  "Tower of Babble" gets ca. 29,300 google web hits, many of
them probably conscious plays on words; some of them are surely
genuine, but it's hard to pick those out.

so we haven't yet put either spelling into the database as an entry.

[CW, 8/28/05]

I have had "Babel>babble" on my "difficult cases" list for a long time,
but for some reason hadn't looked at "Tower of Babble". Instead, I've
been wrestling "a babble of voices", and the problem is similar: There
are lots of examples, some of which are meant to read "babble", others
(many, many) play on "Babel", and some of the rest might be eggcorns.

The American Dialect Society -

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