Chatter, Natter, and Patter

By Mark Nichol

Three coincidentally rhyming words that all serve as slang to describe idle and extensive talk are discussed in this post.

To chatter is to talk quickly and/or casually, though the term also refers to any fast, high-pitched, or clicking sound, such as the involuntary striking of one’s upper and lower teeth in response to cold or fear. One who chatters in the sense of speaking is a chatterer, and the adjectival form is chattery, though both words are rarely used.

However, chat is a common verb describing the action of informal conversation and a noun for the act itself, as well as, by extension, a term describing casual online correspondence (or the semblance of such when communicating with a business’s customer-service representative). One prone to chatting is chatty, and chit-chat is reduplicative slang for such a pastime. The pejorative phrase “chattering classes” was coined to refer to well-educated people who often express their sociopolitical views (other than one’s own); the sense has narrowed somewhat to apply to journalists, politicians, and academicians.

The verb natter pertains to long, trivial conversation; in British English, the word is also a noun, but it is not employed as such in American English.

Both chatter and natter are onomatopoeic (imitative of talking or other sounds), but patter, which has more nuanced definitions, also has a more complicated origin; it derives from pater, the first word in Latin of the Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Paternoster (“Our Father”). The often rapid-fire delivery of this prayer at the closing of church services inspired the slang word, which refers to quick speech, but with one of two specific connotations: either the stereotypical hard-sell verbal onslaught of a high-pressure salesperson, or a humorous, almost singsong delivery in light entertainment, such as the tongue-twisting torrents uttered by mid-twentieth-century comedian Danny Kaye or by performers in Gilbert and Sullivan light operas, written during the Victorian era.

The near rhyme prattle, derived by way of prate from a Dutch word, is a synonym, as is tattle, though it more often refers to telling secrets or reporting on another’s misdeeds.


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