Originally the word meant to sift, for example to remove refuse from spices. With time its meaning became distorted to what it is now. From Old Italian garbellare (to sift), from Arabic gharbala (to select). Earliest documented use: 1483. http://wordsmith.org/words/garble.html

I found the two meanings are quite different: the old meaning is to remove usually visible impurities from something (clear) while the new meaning is to distort (not clarify). Why did the meaning change so much?

Some dictionaries have removed the old meaning 'sift'. Is the old meaning still used now?

e.g. Google translates the "garbled" in "Garbled spices are less likely to contaminate a recipe. " into "mixed" while I think it means "sifted" in this context. Does "garble" still have its old meaning?

  • 25
    So what you are saying is that the meaning of the verb "garble" has been... garbled?
    – Nzall
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 7:52
  • 2
    Sieving does not sort substances by type but by grain size. In cooking, sieves are used to remove lumps, but also to mix powdered ingredients, e.g. flour and cocoa.
    – Ben
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 8:42

2 Answers 2


The meaning of garble as to distort began as a usage of its meaning "to sift" as to pick out parts of a speech or writing, as we would now say to "quote out of context" or to "cherry-pick".

By 1930, the word had begun to be used generally as "to confuse", but the meaning of "to cherry-pick quotes" was still common.

Since about 1950, the meaning has rapidly changed, being used as a term for radio interference, and for general confusion of meaning.

So we see a progression from

  • Select the good parts of something
  • Select parts (good or bad) to serve a purpose (by 1800)
  • misrepresent an idea, message or author by quoting out of context
  • Misrepresent an idea, message or author deliberately or accidentally (by 1930)
  • generally confuse a message of any kind (by 1930)

In the 1930s, both meanings were in use. After 1970 at the latest the last meaning has become almost exclusive. It seems to me that the most likely reason is the adoption of "garble" as a jargon term to mean radio interference, combined with the exposure of large portions of the population to radio communication during the second world war.


In the early 1800's the meaning of garble as "to take out of context", generally deliberately, is well supported:

Johnson's Dictionary (1805) has:

To GARBLE v. a. [garbellare, Italian.] To sift; to part; to separate the good from the bad. But you, who fathers and traditions take, And garble some, and some you quite forsake (Dryden) Had our author set down this command, without garbling, as God gave it, and joined mother to father, it had made directly against him (Locke)

Mr Pole's Justification of the arrest of the Catholic Delegates (1811):

I shall however, deal by his work with candor; I shall not garble his lines nor his sentiments; I shall not pluck from his pages the passage where the author may have slept, nor shall I take advantage of the page which he has written in the cause of liberality, by only quoting that which he has written in the cause of intolerance. I shall deal fairly by the author...

Cobbett's Political Register, Volume 19 (1811)

It never has been my custom to garble, or to suppress. I always like that my opponents should be heard as well as myself.

Remarks by E Burke on mr Stanser's Exammination (1805)...

... in imitation of other pamphleteers collects a summary of what he calls Catholic doctrine, not from Catechisms, Manuels, Professions of faith, or any authentic source ; but from the misrepresentation of party writers, who finding it impossible to refute any article of Catholic doctrine fairly stated, garble some quotations from obscure writers of no authority

An Essay on the Law of Patents for New Inventions (1810)

I agree that in so doing we must not garble any sentence referred to, so as to give it a different meaning from that which it naturally imports, when taken altogether;

Around this time I don'[t find any examples of "garble" as to "accidentally misunderstand or misquote".

Between 1850 and 1859 we find the same:

Notes and Queries, volume 9(1854)

As usually applied in England, to garble is to pick out, sift out what may serve a particular purpose, and thus destroy or mutilate the fair character of the whole.

Webster's Dictionary (1854):

  1. In present usage, to pick out or separate such parts from a whole as may serve a purpose

The Parliamentary debates (1854)

with expressions, it is not to garble despatches, it is not by quotations here and misquotations there to make n colourable case of mismanagement against the Ministry, at a moment of national exigency like the present, that I am led to quotation

From 1900 to 1909:

The Fortnightly Review - Volume 80:

Did he, in other words, in describing Carlyle's behaviour as a husband, garble his evidence, and suppress or distort facts, in order to represent the character of his dead friend as worse than it really was

By 1950 the meaning had begun to change.

Still in the old sense:

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1952)

GARBLE, originally a mediaeval commercial term in the Mediterranean ports, meaning to sort out, or to sift merchandise, such as spices, etc., in order to separate what was good from the refuse ; hence to select the best of anything.

And in the new sense:

Stories for Tomorrow: An anthology of modern science fictio (1954)

He turned on the recorder and winced at the garble of sound that blared forth

By 1975 most examples seem to be to do with radio interference.

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    Mmm I love a good etymology journey in the early afternoon. Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 20:16

Merriam-Webster describes the transformation from "sifted" to "distorted" under "The Winding History of Garble":

Garble developed from Late Latin cribellare, a verb meaning "to sift." Arabic speakers borrowed "cribellare" as "gharbala," and the Arabic word passed into Old Italian as garbellare; both of these words also meant "to sift." When the word first entered Middle English as "garbelen," its meaning stayed close to the original; it meant "to sort out the best." But that sort of sifting can cause a distortion, and in early Modern English "garble" came to mean "to distort the meaning or sound of."

The sentence "Garbled spices are less likely to contaminate a recipe", (which is also from MW) can be rewritten as:

Sifted spices are less likely to contaminate a recipe.

As for actual usage, the "sifted" meaning seems to be restricted to spices (for example here). As a native speaker, I have only heard garbled meaning "distorted" and not "sifted".

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    How the hell did a word go from Latin to Arabic to Old Italian? How was there a break from Latin to Old Italian that lost words?
    – Davor
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 10:34
  • 5
    @Davor that's not too uncommon in language. It even happens in the modern day. Just look at the word cosplay in English which is from Japanese which took it from English "costume play". After the word comes back into the language second-hand it probably has picked up some different nuance the original word or phrase didn't have.
    – Aiaimai
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 14:59
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    @Davor This happens all the time. For example, Latin had castra, which Arabic took to make qaṣr. Then the Spanish in Andalucía took the Arabic word along with its article al-qaṣr to make their own word alcázar, by which point the word's ultimate origin in L. castra is somewhat hidden after its Arabian excursion. More importantly, alcázar carries a different connotation in Spanish than the more common word that was directly derived from L. castrum/castra via L. castellum, which is Spanish castillo. Both are castles, but they are not the same kind of castle.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 6, 2017 at 17:35

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