Gargle vs. gurgle

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To gargle is to pass air through liquid suspended in the back of the throat, usually for hygienic or therapeutic purposes. The word is also used as a noun for a liquid that is used to gargle, and it is used figuratively to describe sounds that resemble gargling. It is in this figurative sense that gargle comes close to gurgle, which means (1) to flow in an irregular current, and (2) to make a noise resembling liquid flowing in an irregular current. But the words are easy to keep separate if you associate gargling with the human throat and gurgling with the sound of moving liquid.


Though the words are similar in sound and have over the centuries been variants of each other in a few senses, they are not etymologically related. Gargle, which has origins in the Middle French gargouiller, came to English in the 16th century with its modern sense already in place (though it has borne other senses through its history).1 Gurgle, being an onomatopoeic word, is difficult to trace to a single origin.2 It has parallels in the Germanic languages that share roots with English, and there are similar words in the European Romance languages, so it could be influenced by multiple sources. In any case, it was a scientific term in early English use, referring to abdominal gurgling sounds, and gained its modern sense by around 1700.1


In these Cases, then, let the Mouth be frequently gargled with it, and the ulcerated Parts continually cover’d with soft Linen Cloths or Spunges. [An essay on the sea-scurvy, Anthony Addington (1753)]

[H]ow often have I broken from her abruptly, buried myself in the depth of those woods, and told my tale of melancholy to the winds that shook the foliage over me, or the streams that gurgled at my feat. [The Gentelman’s magazine (1795)]

This cooling gargle may be used either in the inflammatory quinsy, or in fevers, for cleansing the tongue and fauces. [The Female’s Friend, and General Domestic Adviser, Robert Huish (1837)]

The sound of rushing waters seemed to gurgle in his ears, as the drawing-room door was thrown open. [Charles Chesterfield, Frances Milton Trollope (1841)]

Much has been written about the futility of gargles, but H. Lavrand believes that the muscular tension of gargling is of some value in itself. [Medical News (1901)]

He walked down into the main square, where he could hear the fountain gurgling. [Three Soldiers, John Dos Passos (1921)]

At the end of the study period, the group that regularly gargled had a nearly 40 percent decrease in upper respiratory tract infections. [New York Times (2010)]

All was quiet behind closed electronic gates apart from the gurgle of the Grecian-urn fountain at the entrance. [Irish Times (2012)]


1. Chambers Dictionary of Etymologyir?t=grammarist 20&l=as2&o=1&a=0550142304
2. Gurgle in the OED