A recent article reported that a certain murder suspect who has been much in the news lately had appeared on a TV special during which he murmured to a mirror, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” Today’s disquisition is not about whether he killed them all, or even any one of them, but whether he murmured those words, or mumbled them, or perhaps muttered them.
Those three words have the same fundamental meaning, to “speak quietly and indistinctly.” But they have differing nuanced connotations, about which not all lexicographers agree. Mumble is the most straightforward of the three, having little meaning beyond its primary one, although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it may also denote “speaking with the lips partly closed.” This may derive from its etymology, Middle English momelen, which meant to “eat in a slow, ineffective manner,” and as a result, perhaps to talk with one’s mouth full. Its current meaning is from the mid-14th century.
Murmur has the additional connotation, according to both the OED and Webster’s, of being a continuous sound, without interruption. Again, etymology may be the clue, since the origin of murmur is the Proto-Indo-European reduplicative base mor-mor, which is of an imitative origin, alluding to the sound of “roaring, boiling, buzzing, or crackling (as in a fire).”
In addition, both dictionaries suggest murmur has the added meaning of “discontent” or “complaint,” synonomous with “grumbling,” dating to the 14th century in English and to the 12th century in the Old French murmure, which meant the “sound of human voices arguing.” Its meaning to “speak indistinctly” dates only to 1670.
I would further suggest that murmur can carry with it a romantic or sensuous aspect, as a brook may murmur, or a sweetheart may murmur sweet nothings to his beloved.
In this sense murmur is related to a susurrus, from the the Latin susurare, to “hum” or to “whisper.”
Everyone agrees that mutter carries with it the connotation of “dissatisfaction that one dare not utter more openly.” Its root is 14th-century Middle English moteren, which stems from the Proto-Indo-European stem mut-, meaning to “grunt.”
Given these variations, I would opt for mumble in the case of the alleged killer-in-the-mirror. But I expect trying to reach a verdict on this question would produce a hung jury.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou once served on a hanging jury. The other eleven members tried to hang him, but he got away in the nick of time.
I could not be surer or clearer or firmer
In my views about mumble and mutter and murmur:
If you talk with your mouth full, it shows you’re a
Without any manners—what’s more, you’re a
If you wish to complain about things you can’t utter,
When you speak, it is certain you’re going to mutter.
To your honey or dearie, however you term her,
Sweet nothings are said in an amorous murmur.