VERBIAGE: “Speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.” (from 18th c. French verbier “to chatter”) — New Oxford American Dictionary

My days as a copywriter began in the early 1990s, and the word verbiage was already being carelessly thrown around like puppies at an Ozzy concert. I’m not sure who started the slow lexicide of the word, but it obviously began well before I was born:

“…use concise military verbiage…” — George S. Patton

As destructive with language as he was with the Germans, I would say. By the historic definition of verbiage, Patton’s patter constitutes a grotesque oxymoron; verbiage means over-wordy language, and by definition is not concise.

Why, then, do managers, politicians and other educated folk insist on verbiage when wording, word choice, or copy will do? Like with most other misuses, it probably began with a misunderstanding. We can imagine a thick-headed fellow somewhere (maybe it was Patton) being told to “shorten the verbiage” and taking it as a neutral statement rather than running to the dictionary, which is obviously where he needed to go. Pretentiousness also plays a hand in the lexicide of verbiage, as does that requirement of all business writing — the need to obfuscate.

So now, while the NOAD and Webster’s Revised Unabridged contain only the original (and in our estimation, true) meaning of verbiage, most other dictionaries include the new definition, for which there is a perfectly good and unmistakable synonym: wording. However, verbiage as a word expressing disgust with overly flowery language was already dead by the 1990s when I started writing for a living. I’ll let Washington Irving provide a fitting epitaph for this useful meaning:

“Verbiage may indicate observation, but not thinking.”

— Otto E. Mezzo

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