Verbing, mistake, or what?

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky reported yesterday on a usage that was new to her: someone referring to people barbering on about some topic or another. She and Elizabeth Traugott and I speculated about the source of the expression. Was it a malapropism of some sort (perhaps an eggcorn)? — if so, what could people have been aiming at when they came up with barber on about? Or was it a deliberate innovation, a verbing of the noun barber (or perhaps an extension of the existing verb barber)? — if so, what’s the route that would end in barber on about ‘go on about, yammer on about, blather on about’?

Speculation on the first possibility: babble, blabber, and blather are the closest phonologically to barber in the right syntactic/semantic domain, though they aren’t especially close. (Other, more remote, possibilities include prattle, chatter, ramble, rattle, drivel, and yammer.)

Speculation on the second possibility: perhaps barber-shop talk, men’s talk while barbering goes on, is the source of the usage.

(As always, both could have contributed to the expression.)

Whatever the source, the expression is modestly common, in tech contexts and (especially) political discussions, especially in PRP form. A few cites:

[BSE] Remember when critics – mostly liberal, many of them correct – used to barber on about how crazy some military terminology sounded to civilian ears? (link)

[PRS] Tech gurus barber on about the historical applications of the “network effect,” open architectures, collaborative development and the triumph of infrastructure. (link)

[PRS] Consider the commentary rising like marsh gas from the swamps of Salon, where Cintra Wilson harbors a visceral dislike for any Christian to the right of her former colleague, Anne Lamott. Conservative pundits have noticed the operatic disdain with which Wilson barbers on about Sarah Palin, but too few remember that Palin is only the latest to feel the lash from the lily pad where Wilson has been trying to work frog princess alchemy on a pedestrian collection of hatreds since the Clinton administration. (link)

[PRP] There’s no better content than Melville’s Great American Novel, but the publishing execution is all wrong. The next time you hear some printing visionary barbering on about re-purposing, remember Ahab and his great white whale. (link)

[PRP] Listen, here’s a little good news, and couldn’t we all use it? When some gasbag starts barbering on about how rich kids are spoiled, poor kids are criminals and the world’s generally going to hell, tell the cynic about 826 Michigan. (link)



4 Responses to “Verbing, mistake, or what?”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    It sounds like a derivative from old film-lot “rhubarb”–both verb and noun. There are many version of “rhubarb” the plant (not all in English) that involve combinations of [b*rb*r], e.g., “rebarbar”. Since the general idea is to make generic crowd noise, the actual name does not matter much. It would not be difficult to transform “go rhubarb in the corner” into “barbering in the corner”.

  2. ShadowFox Says:

    I should have completed the thought… “Rhubarb” stands for making crowd-like noises that are not meant to be distinguishable as actual words. There are several words that are used for this, “rhubarb” is one of them. So a bunch of extras get an instruction to go off-camera and repeat “rhubarb” with slightly varying intonation. When you have a bunch of people doing it at the same time, the net effect is indistinguishable from crowd noise/hum.

  3. Richard Says:

    Could this be related to the old George Burns quote?

    “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” (As seen, for example, at

    That seems a lot like barbering to me…

  4. Gary Says:

    burbling? one burbles on about things.

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