What’s All the Mumble About? An Exploration of Hollywood’s New Favorite Word
The term was rumored to have been coined in jest by a sound editor in 2005, but the construct has demonstrated considerable lasting power, canonized in New York Times articles such as “A Generation Finds Its Mumble” from 2007 and more recently in reference to Drinking Buddies, “Mumblecore Masters, Enunciating Clearly.”
The term refers to a genre of film or television characterized by naturalistic dialogue, small budgets, relatively unknown actors, and seemingly low-stakes plots focused on slight shifts in interpersonal relationships. The first part of the compound, mumble, means to speak in a low indistinct manner, almost to an unintelligible extent. The mumble in mumblecore might be a reference to low production values that sometimes resulted in poorer sound quality of these films—especially considering the term was coined by a sound editor—but paired with the –core suffix, the mumble hints at more.
The suffix -core, is extracted from the phrase hard core, specifically the sense of the word that emerged in the 1930s meaning “an irreducible nucleus or residuum; also a stubborn or reactionary minority.” In the late 1970s, hardcore came to describe a subgenre of punk music that was heavier and faster than the first wave of punk. Since then,–core seems to have gobbled up a “stubborn or reactionary minority” sense and claimed it all its own as it has branched out and now forms words that name a rebellious, anti-mainstream lifestyle, social movement, type of music, or in this case, genre of film. Grindcore, emocore, queercore, and nerdcore are just of a few -core words that have emerged since punk popularized this power-packed suffix.
The rebellious, anti-mainstream element embedded in the -core suffix is particularly fascinating, and reveals mumblecore, and all -core words, as a reactionary term. The rebellious thread shared among films and TV shows that fall into the mumblecore category seems to be against the glossy, inflated, and formulaic form of storytelling that has dominated big-budget filmmaking. Contrasted against this narrative style, the meandering mumble of mumblecore gains new significance, signaling a form of storytelling that elevates those seemingly mundane, unintelligible moments that make up life.