The Grammarphobia Blog

Speechifying therapy

Q: In this political year, I have been hearing “speechify” more. This appears to be a needlessly circular formation, but it serves a humorous purpose by describing needlessly long speaking. Is this word an old or recent construction?

A: The word “speechify” has been around for a few hundred years, which seems just about as long as some of the speechifying we’ve had to sit through.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “speechify” as “to make or deliver a speech or speeches; to harangue or ‘hold forth’; to speak or talk at some length or with some degree of formality.”

In ordinary use, the OED says, “speechify” and its derivatives are “chiefly employed as a humorous form or with depreciatory suggestion.”

Standard dictionaries use adjectives such as “boring,” “annoying,” “tedious,” and “pompous” to describe all that speechifying.

The OED cites this description of the usage from John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “a rather low word, and seldom heard except among bar-room politicians.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun “speechifying” is from a 1723 edition of the Briton, a weekly edited by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett: “He has an excellent Talent at Speechifying.”

The OED’s first two examples of the verb “speechify” are from The Orators, a 1762 play by the British dramatist Samuel Foote: “And have you speechify’d yet?” … “I did speechify once at a vestry.”

Finally, the earliest Oxford example of “speechifying” used as an adjective is from a March 18, 1803, letter in The Life and Correspondence of John Foster (1846): “The man who has just conquered his speechifying antagonist.”

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