In the English-speaking world, and probably also in many other cultures, you can signal imbecility or infancy (on the part of the first, second, or a third person) by keeping your mouth closed, or nearly so, and then vocalizing while flicking your finger up and down over your protruding lips. The vocalization is usually a fairly neutral, unchanging pitch and volume.

I recently watched a movie where a character did this, and the SDH subtitles captioned this as "[ululates]". "Ululates" struck me as being the wrong word, since I've only ever heard it used to describe a loud, high-pitched wail, usually with rhythmic and rapid movements of the inner mouth parts. Reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary, Wiktionary, Wikipedia, and Merriam-Webster generally agree with my conception of the term. Some of them refer specifically to the tongue and/or uvula being the manner of articulation, some mention that the sound is used to express "joy" and/or "lamentation", and others refer to the sound in more general terms as simply a "howl" or a "wail". None of them mention digital manipulation of the lips, and none of them indicate that the sound is used to signal imbecility.

Does English have a specific word or a set phrase to denote the particular sound/gesture I'm describing?


1 Answer 1


I would go with the onomatopoeic word burbling. A more specific term is batty lip burbling given by TvTropes, and also described as motorboating themselves.

Burble, for the relevant onomatopoeic sense, was coined by Lewis Caroll in the poem Jabberwocky in 1871.

In the poem “Jabberwocky,” the Jabberwock, “with his eyes of flame … burbled as it came!” As memorable as the word is for us, Carroll reportedly didn’t remember creating it. In a letter, however, he said it likely was a combination of bleat, murmur and warble.

Today, we use the word burble as verb meaning “to make a bubbling sound; bubble” or “to speak in an excited manner; babble.” - dictionary.com

  • 1
    I've heard it called a digitolabial trill, which is usually correct. Though every kid finds variations. Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 12:28
  • To be clear, are you simply proposing to use the word burbling for this action, or do you have attestations of its use for this specific meaning?
    – Psychonaut
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 13:56
  • It is an apt onomatopoeic word to use and it is mainly used in colloquial speech. Although, it is difficult to find written examples as it is a very specific gesture. It is possible to find discussions online about this gesture where this word is mentioned. I've also provided the TvTropes reference for the exact gesture for credibility of its usage where burbling is part of a more descriptive phrase. There can be other names of this gesture in different communities, dialects etc.; possibly many are misused as there are other similar gestures like the one without using fingers.
    – ermanen
    Commented Aug 31, 2022 at 20:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.