Column: Filling the pauses with, um, you know … embolalia


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

A few years ago, my friend Kristen and I created a podcast called “The Exotic Fruit Review.” In it, we sampled exotic fruits, discussed them and interviewed people who were leading extraordinary lives. While we enjoyed having a quirky podcast, Kristen and I had to do all the scheduling, producing and editing work ourselves.

One of the things that drove me downright batty was editing our episodes. While the content was interesting and even mildly entertaining, I hated listening to the sound of my own voice. I began to notice a verbal pattern where my voice would get ahead of my brain. While I was thinking of the right words to say, I’d fill the silent voids with a steady cadence of “uhs” and “ums.” While Kristen and I loved trying exotic fruits, including durian and mamey sapote, the production toll (as well as parenting our respective kids) caught up to us and we halted production indefinitely.

There’s a term for filler words and sounds we utter while navigating to the right word or thought: “embolalia” (or “embolololia”). It comes from the Greek compound word “embolos,” a combination of “emballo” (to throw in) and “lalia” (forming language with abnormal or disordered speech). Other terms to describe this type of speech include “hesitation forms,” “automatic speech” and “formulaic language.”

Before you recognize this pattern in yourself and think that you have some kind of worrisome disorder, know that nearly everyone includes some form of embolalia in their speech, whether or not they’re aware of it. Embolalia encompasses all filler words, including “like,” “kind of,” “you know” and “I mean,” as well as non-words, including “um,” “uh,” “er” and “em.”

Formal speech courses discourage embolalia so that speakers’ messages get their points across without any communication barriers. In fact, the public speaking organization Toastmasters International refers to embololia words and sounds as “crutch words.” You can even download an app called LikeSo that will tally your overused filler words and train you to drop them from your rhetoric.

Legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith discussed embolalia back in 1991. Writing a daily column for 37 years, Smith took particular issue with the filler word “well” creeping into common parlance. He decried “the insertion of the word ‘well’ where it is not necessary and has no grammatical function.” Well, I know what he means because I use it all the time — in newspapers, of all places! That is to say, um, we all have a couple of, you know, bad habits.