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“Verbiage” used instead of wordiness or excessively long writing

This misuse of “verbiage” bothered me a lot from when I first heard it. I worked for a computer company then in the mid-1980s and one day several engineers (programmers) at a meeting called various papers “verbiage”. The papers were marketing reports, technical proposals and the like, all prose. It had long been clear that these engineers disliked reading anything more than a short paragraph long, and now their contempt for written language was evident, too. They assumed “verbiage” meant “written language” and because they used it indiscriminately for long documents as well as short ones, it was also apparently they didn’t know “verbiage” only meant excessive or poorly written documents, or sometimes long, tedious documents without interest. “I looked at the verbiage”, they’d say, “and the verbiage from IBM is a little better.” Or, “I think our verbiage should reflect we avoid spaghetti programming.” Their tone, facial expressions and irritated manner left no question of their feelings. Soon it seemed thousands of people misused the word “verbiage” as they did, and later probably millions. I hear it less because I no longer work in a corporation.

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Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary lists two definitions for "verbiage," which it dates to 1721:

1: a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content?2: manner of expressing oneself in words

The second meaning does not appear in Merriam-Webster's Fifth Edition; it is a recent usage, but an accepted one. Arguably, your former colleagues did not seriously misuse the word (though they may have used it too much). However, their choice of "verbiage" to mean "text" is symptomatic of business-speak, where a profusion of words usually of little or obscure content is common.

Instead of being bothered, why not just enjoy the irony?

douglas.bryant December 21, 2009, 2:33pm

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I don't answer Why questions. Careless, stupid misuse of language tends to degrade it.

ps60s December 21, 2009, 2:41pm

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There is no misuse of "verbiage" here. The word has been used to mean "Diction, wording, verbal expression" since 1804. The OED:

1804 WELLINGTON in Gurw. Desp. (1835) III. 193 All that is nothing; the previous verbiage [of the treaty] is thought sufficient to bind us.

goofy January 8, 2010, 11:49am

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If the engineers you are describing clearly disliked reading anything longer than a paragraph and had contempt for longer documents, then isn't it possible that they WERE using "verbiage" in accordance with your own definition? Contrary to your later comment, it seems to me that they may have been acutely aware that verbiage meant "excessive or poorly written documents."

porsche January 8, 2010, 12:15pm

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Some where I got the impression that to say 'the language in the document could be improved' or 'the language in the document implies I need to do xzy' was more proffesional but I cant seem to find evidence on the internet of that.

sean_mcad December 9, 2010, 1:36pm

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Yes     No