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

Xerox ad 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.

The answer

  • The OED says a 1918 US memoir was the first to use "blah" in its present meaning
  • But it may have evolved from an earlier phrase, "blab blab blab"
  • In Ancient Greece, the term was "bar, bar, bar"

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.

Yada v blah

  • In 1997, 'yada, yada, yada' was used in an episode of Seinfeld, after which its popularity continued to grow
  • At the same time, 'blah blah blah' dipped in use
  • But as of 2000 'blah' continued to be used much more than 'yada' - almost 10 times more

Source: NGrams

"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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