I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
There are people who campaign for clear language, but their voices tend to be swamped in an avalanche of meaningless verbiage. They ask why can’t we have communication that states clearly what it means? Why do parents have to endure edu-babble on their children’s report cards such as this example: “Johnny represents fractions using concrete materials, words, and the standard fractional notation, and explains the meaning of the denominator as the number of the fractional parts of a whole set, and the numerator as the number of fractional part being considered”? Say what?
The Use of Euphemism
Bill Lutz, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, has been on a personal campaign to increase the use of plain language for years.
In an interview with Mark Kelley on the CBC Newsworld program Connect (October 2011), Professor Lutz pointed out that layoffs have created a rich vein of made-up jargon. “At one point I had 114 terms [for layoffs]; ‘reduction in force,’ of course, is a common one, but I like ‘voluntary reduction in force.’ I have this view of people raising their hands and saying ‘Fire me. Fire me.’ ”
He adds a few other favourites are “Elimination of redundancies in the human resources area;” or the Philadelphia company that laid off 500 people but did not like to call the layoffs what they were. The business preferred to state that the company is “continually managing our human resources. Sometimes, we manage them up, sometimes we manage them down.”
A Plain English Campaign
A British group hands out awards to those who create mangled jargon.
A “Golden Bull” or “Foot in Mouth” are not highly cherished trophies because they indict organizations and people for murderous assaults on the English language. They are handed out annually by the Plain English Campaign.
A branch of the U.K.’s National Health Service got a gong for this horror: “NHS Tayside Board has asked the Executive team to develop a dashboard approach to performance reporting and assurance. It is increasingly recognised that high quality information presented through a dashboard approach is a key driver in promoting a performance and improvement culture within organisations by providing a balanced and intuitive view of improvement and performance.” Yikes.
Or, how about this gem from the Children’s Mutual trading company “explaining” – er – something: “… the ‘New Normal’ economic environment of relatively low growth means that the ability to differentiate between secular and cyclical growth opportunities becomes more important and that for the foreseeable future the main driving influence on market sentiment will be the structural adjustments and the political capital required to help mitigate the contractionary influence of low growth”?
Does that mean returns on investments might not be very good for a while? Just a guess.
And, here’s Russell Brand banging on about a topic near and dear to his heart although one that’s completely incomprehensible to everyone else; “This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby in full verbose cry in the BBC Television series Yes, Prime Minister
The Glory Days of George W. Bush
Classic failures to communicate.
Advanced interrogation techniques became popular among Bush administration officials to describe what to everyone else was simply torture. Professor Lutz notes that the original usage of that phrase can be found in the Holocaust Museum in Berlin where there is a document in which a Gestapo official asks his superiors for permission to use “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Another Bush administration quote criticized by the Plain English Campaign came from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Rumsfeld could be criticized for many things, but a careful reading of this statement reveals that it does actually make sense, even if in a highly convoluted way; which is more than can be said for many of the things that came out of his boss’s mouth. Here’s a George W. Bush gem from July 2001: “I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right.”
It was quotes such as this that prompted Britain’s Plain English Campaign to give President Bush a Lifetime Achievement Award.
And, then Along Comes a Man who Can't Follow a Train of Thought
Convoluted Speech from Stars
Other recipients of this not-so-coveted Golden Bull prize include several from the world of entertainment.
Richard Gere, told The Guardian newspaper in 2002: “I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. Does it change the fact of who I am what anyone says about it? If I was a giraffe, and someone said I was a snake, I’d think, no, actually I’m a giraffe.”
Alicia Silverstone was promoting her 2001 movie Clueless (the title gives a hint about its intellectual depth) when she tried to pitch it as something more meaningful in an interview with The Telegraph in the U.K: “I think that the film Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it’s true lightness.”
A humourist and ex-bureaucrat took on what he called “the vacuumental thinking and idiotoxicities of Washington.”
With great wit James H. Boren skewered officials whose skill was stringing together polysyllables to say absolutely nothing.
He was a U.S. government official who later campaigned for the use of plain language. He published his 1972 book When in Doubt Mumble as a tongue-in-cheek guide for people who wanted to obscure the meaning of what they had to say. Another of his successful books was How to be a Sincere Phoney, a Handbook for Politicians and Bureaucrats (1999).
His advice to those facing difficult decisions was “When in charge, ponder ... When in trouble, delegate ... When in doubt, mumble.” Another priceless quote of his was “bureaucracy is the epoxy that greases the wheels of government.”
Boren created the Order of the Bird that he handed to organizations that showed exceptional “creative nonresponsiveness.” Unfortunately for those who like clear language, James Boren died in 2010 at the age of 84, but there are others who have taken up his crusade.
A group of nerdy types at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created what they called a SCIgen generator. It’s a computer program that spits out academic papers that use technical jargon but are, in fact, gibberish. The creators say the aim is “to maximize amusement, rather than coherence.” In 2005, the team submitted one such paper Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy to a computing conference in Florida. To the delight of the hoaxers it was accepted.
James Joyce’s book Ulysses ends with a soliloquy of two sentences that runs for 36 pages. This probably accounts for his wife, Nora Barnacle, famously saying to him “Why don’t you write books people can read?”
- “Report Card Comments Petition.” Society for Quality Education, August 20, 2009.
- “Bafflegab Gobbledygook: War on Meaningless, Redundant Lingo Heats up.” Connect with Mark Kelley, CBC Newsworld, October 14, 2011.
- Plain English Campaign.
- “American Gigolo in London.” Libby Brooks, The Guardian, June 7, 2002.
- “Statesman, Teacher Made a Joke of Bad Politics.” Tim Stanley, Tulsa World, April 27, 2010.
- “Prank Fools US Science Conference.” BBC News, April 15, 2005.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on January 27, 2017:
Funny and priceless examples Rupert, but also depressing that so many people who should know better are still writing such drivel. Sometimes it's just down to carelessness - failure to think before they expose everyone to their nonsense. Other times they use this gibberish to deliberately confuse, or for reasons of political correctness.
Glad you included the clip from 'Yes Prime Minister' - to my mind the wittiest and best sit-com ever :) Alun
Kate Swanson from Sydney on January 05, 2017:
I am really beginning to lose hope for the English language myself! "Post-truth" has to be the worst of the latest crop. However, I also lament the death of grammar. I've been posting chapters of my novel on CritiqueCircle.com and having people criticise me for using passive voice, when what I've written is "She was running".