Daily Archives: March 21, 2023


There are quite a lot of words that we use on a regular basis to smooth the flow of reading – or just to give the impression of more content – that are not, strictly speaking, essential to the basic sense.

We regularly use many words that don’t add information to help text seem smoother or fuller.

We frequently use filler words.

Verbal excipients abound.

Say, are you familiar with this word excipient? The Oxford English Dictionary says it’s obsolete. My pharmacist friends and colleagues haven’t gotten the memo on that. And, in a way, neither have I – although I seldom use the word excipient, I spend a chunk of time every morning working on articles about prescription drugs, and one of the things I handle regularly are lists of what the articles call non-medicinal ingredients. Which are, in another word, excipients.

“Oh, filler, you mean.” Well, yes and no. Perhaps the best way to define excipient is that it’s everything in a medication except the active ingredient. Excipients aren’t just there to bulk up the pills (which can be necessary; the amount of active ingredient is sometimes very small because it’s very potent, milligram for milligram), and they’re not just the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – although, yes, the substantial doses of sugar and flavouring you get in many medication syrups are indeed excipients and they do indeed serve to get people to take the stuff more willingly. But excipients also serve other purposes: they help the medication stay in pill form; they help the medication dissolve more easily when taken (and not before); they help the pills be more identifiable (prescription medications are expected to be visually distinguishable from other prescription medications, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining); they help the medication last long on the shelf (or in the fridge); they help the medication – the active ingredient – be more effective. In short, they are the vehicle taking the active ingredient to you.

And the same goes for many verbal excipients. It’s true that brevity is, typically, the soul of wit, and that concision aids cogency, but there are limits. Exiguous wording can be gnomic – sometimes two or three words make a thing much clearer than a single high-potency word, and sometimes dropping a seemingly unnecessary word such as, say, the that left out of “All your friends will try to do is sleep” (i.e., “All that your friends [etc.]”) will cause many readers to interpret a sentence one way up to a certain point and then have to rejig their interpretation – usually a small effort, but more than no effort. We also sometimes use words just to signal what kind of text the text is (in-group terminology) or what discourse it belongs to (citationality!). Parenthetical comments and other appositives and amplifications may seem extraneous, but they better furnish the mental room of the sentence. And beyond that, although some readers take exception to even the whiff of prolixity, there are the things that make text a pleasure to read: luxurious words, full of sound and rhythm and images. There’s a reason some people buy thick biographies rather than reading Wikipedia articles. There is a time and a place for a verbal bubble bath – and few readers eagerly seek out textual cold showers.

There are other less valuable kinds of verbal excipients too, mind you. There are the kinds that truly are there to bulk up, not to smooth the flow; academic and legal texts are typically full of this kind, and its main effect is to make the text seem more important – and often to disguise lack of substance. There are the kinds of circumlocutions that we use out of dread of excessive directness – what I often call verbal bubble wrap. And there are words that seem mainly to exist to make sure unabridged dictionaries are as ponderous and prepossessing as possible.

Of which one would seem to be excipient. After all, it may be concise, but it’s not clear to anyone who hasn’t had it explained to them. You could say that non-medicinal ingredient has more filler, in that it’s more words, but those are words that people already know; excipient is an extra word to stuff into your brain. But you wouldn’t be here reading this if you didn’t like having and knowing more words. And once you know that excipient means all those things I listed off three paragraphs ago, it does seem useful in context. 

And since you’re here for extra knowledge, you of course want to know where excipient comes from. It comes from Latin excipio, from ex- ‘out’ and capio ‘I take’ (which also shows up in words such as English capture and Italian capisci ‘you understand’). This excipio can mean quite different things: it can mean ‘I take out’, it can mean ‘I receive’, it can mean ‘I follow after’, it can mean ‘I rescue’, it can mean ‘I except’ (except is a direct descendent of excipio), and it can mean ‘I host or accommodate’ – as in what medical excipients do. Even in English, defunct senses of excipient include ‘one who takes objection’ and ‘one who takes up in succession’.

But those senses have dissolved in the gut of time. This one pharmaceutical sense has survived. And so may it be. The truth is that, though we may discern verbal excipients, every word can be an active ingredient if well used – language is a drug.