Who, What, Why: When did we start saying 'blah, blah, blah'?

  • 7 May 2014
Xerox ad
Image caption A Xerox ad from 1995 used the term to show off colour printing

A row erupted during a question-and-answer session by a local newspaper in Oregon when a politician took exception to a reporter writing "blah blah blah" in a notebook. How did these words become part of the lexicon, asks Kate Dailey.

It's just one of many words, in many languages, used to denote meaningless or worthless chatter, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown university.

"There so many expressions that all have the same function and often come in threes," she says. "Yada yada yada" is another example.

In ancient Greece, the term was "bar bar bar". Taken from the same root as barbarian, it implied the words beings spoken were "meaningless noises", says Geoff Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley school of information.

The Oxford English Dictionary credits the first documented use of "blah" to American journalist Howard Vincent O'Brien, in his 1918 memoir Wine, Women & War - "[He] pulled old blah about 'service'..." Then three years later, the US magazine Collier's: The National Weekly used a double blah - "Then a special announcer begin a long debate with himself which was mostly blah blah."

But Nunberg says it was probably used before that, and could have evolved from "blab blab blab," a phrase that showed up in books in the 19th Century.

"Blab can mean to reveal, loosely reveal a secret, 'don't blab', or it can mean make noises, talk pointlessly and meaninglessly, as in blabber," he says.

Usage of "blah blah blah" really spiked in the post-war era, according to Google's NGram program, which measures usage frequency in its collection of digital books. "Between 1960 and 2000, it increased 50-fold," says Nunberg.

That may be in part because it's used repeatedly in print advertising to demonstrate that a company's message stands out from the competition. Or perhaps it's because there's been so much more blabber since then.

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