Warbling and Garbling

By Maeve Maddox

I thought I knew the meaning of warble and garble.

If asked to define them, I’d say that warble means “to sing melodiously” and garble means “to distort spoken words,” or “to distort the sense of something written.”

These definitions from the OED suggest that I’m on the right track:

warble: v. intr. To modulate the voice in singing; to sing with trills and quavers. In later use … to sing softly and sweetly, in a birdlike manner; often merely a jocose substitute for sing.

garble: v. To make selections from with a (usually unfair or mischievous) purpose; to mutilate (a statement, writing, etc.) with a view to misrepresentation.

A singer might warble a song. A sound transmission might become garbled. A translator might garble a work in translation, or a sentence might become garbled when transcribed or digitalized.

The words can still be found used with the meanings I recognize:

Connie Francis warbles the hit title tune [“Where the Boys Are”].

Russia’s Mr. Trololo…may warble across America: The clip, which features Khil wordlessly warbling his way through a track … has been viewed several million times on YouTube…

Some writers seem to be using warble when they mean garble:

the person…proved your point with their warbled comment…it was difficult to even follow their train of thought

the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song

My head is full of warbled words–words that don’t quite form the pictures because they are so outlandish.

Sometimes warble and garble occur in tandem:

Like some vamp from a bygone era, Connie Chung, the former CBS and CNN anchorwoman warbled and garbled — it can’t be called singing — a farewell…

She [a court defendant] calls into question the violation of her constitutional right to have the proceedings interpreted when she says that she has been advised that the presiding officer “warbled and garbled” some interpretation to her.

The process of digitalizing audio and video seems to have revived another meaning of warble in a sense that the OED labels obsolete: “to vibrate, quiver; to wobble”:

I’m wondering if people know how a lot of the warbled/warped sounds ala Boards Of Canada/Warp Records is achieved?

I am just embarking on the ripping of old cassettes and the first one I popped into my deck today is warbled beyond repair.

I convert a lot of old time radio shows to mp3s so I probably notice it more, but once you go below a certain level of kps, you start to get a warbled quality to the audio. [or should that be “garbled”?]

And then there are the uses embedded in language whose overall meaning I can only guess at:

When i tried to open an avi file with gxine, the picture was warbled and i got an error message

I did what you suggested and it is better. The bounce to .wav played fine in the workspace. I open itunes imported the .wav then made an mp3 version in itunes. It was not as good as the .wav… thinner sounding but none of the warbling like you were tweaking a flanger.

Anybody know what a flanger is?

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8 Responses to “Warbling and Garbling”

  • Keith

    a flanger is a distortion pedal (or box or software effect) commonly used with guitars.

    “flanging is an audio effect produced by mixing two identical signals together, with one signal delayed by a small and gradually changing period” (wikipedia)

  • Kathryn

    Interesting that that definition of “garble” specifically includes purpose and intent. I think most of us use it almost as a synonym for “jumbled,” except applied primarily to communication.

  • James D. Magee

    A flanger is an electronic device that alters the sound of an instrument by combining out-of-phase copies of its original sound.

  • Matt

    Yeah, a flanger is an electronic musical effect. It makes a musician’s guitar (for example) sound fluctuate in a way that I would describe as warbling.

    The effect originated when a recording engineer would place his finger on the “flange” of recording tape to minutely slow down the motor that was playing back the recording. Layering variously manipulated speeds of the original recording created this warbling effect which came to be known as “flange.”

    Most of the time, this effect is now created electronically or digitally.

  • Julie

    My son has several flangers . . . I just didn’t know it. The phrase “tweaking a flanger” has a wonderful Seussical quality! I’ll have to find a way to incorporate it into my verbal repertoire.

  • Simon Harpham

    A flanger is a guitar pedal that produces a ‘sweeping’ sound. A distortion pedal produces a more ‘cruncy’ sound.

    Here’s a demonstration of a flanger pedal:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW4FoQR9Kxc&feature=related

    And here’s a demonstration of a distortion pedal:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQocfCvpxSw

    There’s a related effect to a flanger called a ‘phaser’ and this sounds like:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scCNMMZWSgk

    You’ll notice there’s only a subtle difference between phasing and flanging (there are wiki articles on both kinds of effect if you’re interested in the details), but distortion and flanging/phasing are very different.

    There is, however, no ‘warbler’ pedal which is a shame because having something that makes your guitar sing like a bird would be fun.

  • Simon Harpham

    Erratum: A distortion pedal produces a more ‘cruncy’ sound.

    That should be ‘crunchy’. I have no idea what ‘cruncy’ is: Maybe a cross between Quincy and a biscuit?

  • ApK

    >>the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song<<

    What about this example suggests the writer should have used 'garbled?'

    Without any context other than the given that it refers to a rendition of a song, I have no trouble believe the writer meant 'warbled' — the group added trilling and modulation (which the 'but' suggests were not appropriate to the song).

    Oh, and to my fellow ax players, you want warble, just rapidly apply vibrato or tremolo…..

    ApK

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