Embolalia in Speech

Businessman speaking before inattentive colleagues at meeting
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The term embolalia refers to hesitation forms in speech---meaningless filler words, phrases, or stammerings such as um, hmm, you know, like, okay, and uh. Also called filler, spacers, and vocal filler.

Embolalia comes from two Greek words meaning "something thrown in." In The Painted Word (2013), Phil Cousineau observes that embolalia is "a near-perfect word to describe what we all do at some point in our lives--we throw words around without thinking about them."

Examples and Observations

  • "Um, this is a fairly unique moment both in our, you know, in our country’s history, and, and in, in, you know, my own life, and um, you know, we are facing, you know, unbelievable challenges, our economy, you know, health care, people are losing their jobs here in New York obviously um, ah, you know." (Caroline Kennedy, in an interview conducted by Nicholas Confessore and David M. Halbfinger of The New York Times, Dec. 27, 2008)
  • "Mrs. Kennedy has managed variously to seem utterly opaque while lacking in the basic skills of plain speaking. There has been not a little mockery of her dependence in conversation on the verbal filler, 'you know.' She was heard to utter it 138 times in a conversation with reporters from The New York Times. In a single TV interview she reportedly galloped past the 200 mark. That's a lot of you knows." (David Usborne, "Now Voters Turn Against Kennedy's Stuttering Campaign." The Independent, Jan. 7, 2009)
  • "Uh, in a school. And my father, he was, uh, from the United States. Just like you, ya know? He was a Yankee. Uh, he used to take me a lot to the movies. I learn. I watch the guys like Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney. They, they teach me to talk." (Al Pacino as Tony Montana in the film Scarface
  • "I've heard about it. I hope you go--you know--I hope you go back to the ranch and the farm is what I'm about to say." (President George W. Bush, explaining that he hadn't yet seen the film Brokeback Mountain, Jan. 23, 2006)

    Throwing Words Around

    "The nervous, I mean, stammering habit of, you know, inserting, I mean kinda throwing meaningless words into, you know, a sentence, when you're, ah, talking. Tossing in the word throw was no accident, as evident in its root word, the Greek emballein, from em, in, and ballein, to throw in or at . . .. So embolalia turns out to be a sixty-four-dollar-word to describe the habit of throwing around words without thinking . . .. The habit is characterized by often uncontrollable utterances (hmm, umm, errr), and is a cringeworthy nervous tic in languages everywhere. The cause may be a general deterioration of the spoken word, or a lack of respect for it, sheer nervousness, or a disdain for proper, poetic, or colorful use of the language."

    (Phil Cousineau, The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins. Viva, 2013)​

    In Defense of Verbal Stumbles

    "Modish public speaking coaches will tell you that it's OK to say 'uh' or 'um' once in a while, but the prevailing wisdom is that you should avoid such 'disfluencies' or 'discourse particles' entirely. It's thought that they repel listeners and make speakers appear unprepared, unconfident, stupid, or anxious (or all of these together).

    . . .

    "But 'uh' and 'um' don't deserve eradication; there's no good reason to uproot them. . . . Filled pauses appear in all of the world's languages, and the anti-ummers have no way to explain, if they're so ugly, what 'euh' in French, or 'äh' and 'ähm' in German, or 'eto' and 'ano' in Japanese are doing in human language at all. . . .

    "In the history of oratory and public speaking, the notion that good speaking requires umlessness is actually a fairly recent, and very American, invention. It didn't emerge as a cultural standard until the early 20th century, when the phonograph and radio suddenly held up to speakers' ears all the quirks and warbles that, before then, had flitted by."

    (Michael Erard, “An Uh, Er, Um Essay: In Praise of Verbal Stumbles.” Slate, July 26, 2011)

    Further Reading