February 24, 2004

Burbling as a good thing

David Brooks, writing approvingly of the progressive attitude of Hispanics, used the verb burble in a way that surprised me:

We are bound together because we Americans share a common conception of the future. ... That mentality burbles out of Hispanic neighborhoods, as any visitor can see.

The jargon file has

burble [Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"] Like flame, but connotes that the source is truly clueless and ineffectual (mere flamers can be competent). A term of deep contempt. "There's some guy on the phone burbling about how he got a DISK FULL error and it's all our comm software's fault." This is mainstream slang in some parts of England.

This corresponds pretty closely to my intuition about burble. I would never use it to describe activity that I view positively. At first, I thought that Brooks' usage must have been a malapropism for bubble. But according to the OED, the jargon file is wrong (at least historically) to insist on a negative connotation, and wrong to cite Jabberwocky as the main source:

1. a. intr. To form vesicles or bubbles like boiling water; to rise in bubbles; to flow in or with bubbles, or with bubbling sound.

1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 10207 As o here yen shulde burble out. c1440 Promp. Parv. 56 Burblon [1499 burbelyn], as ale or oer lykore, bullo. 1470-85 MALORY Arthur X. ii, A fayre welle, with clere water burbelynge. 1530 PALSGR. 459/2 To boyle up or burbyll up as a water dothe in a spring, bouilloner. 1577 W. VALLANS Two Swannes in Leland's Itin. (1759) V. 10 To Whitwell short, whereof doth burbling rise The spring, that makes this little river runne.

The OED does give as a second meaning

2. a. To speak murmurously; to ‘ramble’ on. b. trans. To say (something) murmurously or in a rambling manner. Also transf.

and in this sense, the quotations start with Jabberwocky and are generally more negative in tone:

[1871 ‘LEWIS CARROLL’ Through Looking-Glass i. 22 The Jabberwock..Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came!] 1891 KIPLING Light that Failed viii, You only burble and call me names. 1906 B. VON HUTTEN What became of Pam III. iv, Miss Wantage..began to burble, and then to roar. 1920 MULFORD J. Nelson vii. 67 ‘Forty feet of rope an' a sycamore tree,’ burbled Smitty. 1921 Blackw. Mag. July 31/2 A sleepy dinner it was. We burbled a few plans for next day, and fell asleep by the fire. 1934 T. E. LAWRENCE Let. 6 Aug. (1938) 813 You send me a sensible working-man of a letter..and I burble back in this unconscionable way. 1965 Parade 15 May, ‘I think they just called our flight number,’ burbled Carter.

However, looking for uses on the web, I find plenty that are like the OED's "rise in bubbles" meaning, which seems to be what Brooks had in mind:

A small icy fountain burbles gently in the centre of the room.

Yet at cruising speeds, the big engine burbles along in serene style.

But my experience is that intellectual capital works differently––if legislation is influenced, it is only because that knowledge burbles up.

Brahms’ magnificent Violin Concerto sings with Romantic flair and passion, and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony burbles with the sounds of brooks and birds.

Despite the obvious risks, he positively burbles with enthusiasm, calling his new array "incredible," and the "simplest device I've ever had to manage."

The bass line burbles along amiably and the whole character is of greatest contrast to the stormy grandeur of the chorus.

Live and learn.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 24, 2004 12:17 PM