Tag Archives: garble



This week’s word is garbled, which I came across in an article about spices in “Simple Things” magazine.

The modern sense of garbled is to mix-up something, usually language. For example, “my phone signal was patchy and everything she said to me came out garbled“. The older sense of garbled is almost entirely the opposite and relates to spices rather than words. The complete reversal of meanings for words is surprisingly frequent in English, I’m not sure what that tells me about English-speakers. Are we contrary or confused?


The original source of the word garble is lost at sea, the Mediterranean Sea to be specific, but I’ll try to make it clear.

Latin, as usual, has a hand in it. The Latin word cribrum means sieve. The Late Latin word cribellum is a diminutive of that (little sieve). From there we get gharbal (to sift) in Arabic, garbellare (to sift) in Italian, garbillare (to sift grain) in Spanish. There was plenty of contact between these nations via the Mediterranean over the years and traders would always be talking about taking impurities from their spice and grain products. Spices were imported from Arabic countries via Venice, to Europe.

By the late 1300s the word is garbeler in Anglo French and has reached English as garble by the early 1400s with the meaning of “inspecting and removing dirt from spices”. The article I read in “Simple Things” explained that even today garbled means hand-sorted in the spice trade.

In Middle English (also early 1400s) a garbeler (from Anglo French garbelour) was an official who garbled spices and other dry goods, so it used to be an occupation.

By the late 1400s the idea of garbled meaning sorted was still there, but it also had been joined by the meaning of “distorting for a devious purpose”.  Perhaps the garbelers had been corrupted with bribes by spice-traders?

The association with distorting language arrived in the 1680s and hasn’t left  since.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)


Garble – mixed messages or spice sorting?


This week’s word is garble. Thanks to a distinct lack of sleep last weekend (running a Beaver Scout camp for 24 children aged 6-8 who don’t want to sleep and rise with the dawn chorus will do that to you) and various minor ailments, I have spent most of today garbling my sentences.

Garble’s modern meaning is causing a word, name or message to be unclear on confusing. It sounds a little like your tongue has gobbled itself.

However, garble hasn’t always had this negative meaning. Garbling was once a verb about sorting items. Spices, once so valuable that wars were started over them, were garbled, or graded, to remove impurities. So garbling originally took the nonsense out and improved something, which is quite the reverse of its meaning now.

Garble dates from the 1500s and originates with cribellum (sieve) in Latin, gharbala in Arabic, via garbellare (sift) in Old Italian, and garbelen in Middle English.

Perhaps the next time I garble my sentence I shall advise my listeners to garble it until the meaning becomes clear. That should confuse them thoroughly.

Until next time happy reading, writing and wordfooling,


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