Pompous language is a weapon

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.

14 Responses to Pompous language is a weapon

  1. maceochi says:

    In a very real sense, this could be a useful resource, going forward.

  2. Sean says:

    I agree that using ‘high brow’ language can become a habit, if not monitored. I have over the past few months been reading quite a few 19th century novels. Apart from having to look up an awful lot of words, I also found that my writing started to sound antiquated. Good post, by the way.

  3. Stan says:

    maceochi; TFP: As Watson said in a talk, we now go forward all the time – like salmon.

    Thanks, Sean. We tend inevitably to be influenced by how we see and hear language used around us, whether it’s local accents, peer-group catchphrases, work lingo, or 19th century novels. We’re geared to imitate. I guess the main thing is to be alert to undesirable aspects of that influence, such as the parroting of empty jargon.

  4. Mise says:

    I sometimes translate from English to Irish, and the translation process very much highlights how little sense some of the text makes. Irish simply doesn’t allow for gobbledygook.

  5. stuartnz says:

    When I first saw the title of this piece, I nodded. I use pompous language as a weapon a lot. It’s proved particularly useful in writing emails and letters of complaint. It’s sad but true that the more pretentiously polysyllabic the prose, the more likely a complaint is to be taken seriously. At least, that has been my experience over the last couple of decades. So I write priggishly pompous correspondence knowing that it’s wrong for all the reasons you list above, but also knowing that when I want something fixed, it works.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Harkening back to the late author/ commentator/ provocateur William F. Buckley Jr’s long tenure as host-interviewer of his very popular Network TV show “Firing Line” (1966-1999), I must say he came off as a thoroughly engaged interviewer— exceedingly bright, at times witty and charming, but at the same time rather pompous… almost telling the viewing public thru his use of arcane, or seldom-used ‘flowery’ words that somehow he was a cut above most… a superior intellectual w/ few peers. (Truth be told, he likely was, but no need to flaunt it, in my view.)

    For me, his frequent flights into highfalutin language became slightly annoying, and in some ways, IMHO, distracted from the discussion at hand. He appeared to be hyper aware of his relationship to the in-studio camera(s), as much as he was invested in the immediate conversational back-and-forth w/ his guest. He was notorious for the flashing of his darting, pointy tongue. That’s when one suspected he was about to make a particularly salient point, in earnest.

    Most Buckley aficionados were well aware of his meteoric rise to literary fame at a very young age, and then later founding his highly regarded National Review in 1955, plus all his published novels and essays. So he really had nothing to prove to his TV audience. The guy had been a widely acknowledged, bona fide brainiac of-the-first- order for some time.

    Nowhere did Buckley’s pomposity and attack-mode debating style come to-the-fore more notoriously than in his TV on-air clashes w/ writer, liberal-biased Gore Vidal. It was such great theater to watch these two brilliant wordsmiths go at it tooth-and-nail, in a seeming contest of wills and one-upping complex vocabulary retorts, as they verbally sparred, vigorously defending their heartfelt, mostly mutually exclusive beliefs. The overt hostility was palpable, coming barely short of fist-a-cuffs on a few occasions.

    For these two life-long intellectual adversaries, words were definitely symbolic weapons, wielded w/ consummate skill and cunning precision by both warring camps.

  7. astraya says:

    Lakoff and Johnson investigate ‘metaphors we live by’, one of which is ‘argument is war’. Pompous language might be the man swirling the sword in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, shot down by the plain-talking man with the gun.

  8. Stan says:

    Mise: May it never succumb!

    Stuart: I hadn’t considered this, and of course you’re right. The same excessively formal tone can be turned to pragmatic purpose.

    Alex: Highfalutin language can be annoying for sure – distracting, too. Often it’s unnecessary and serves mainly as a way for the speaker to show off.

    astraya: That’s a good analogy (and a lovely blend of cultural artefacts).

    • degglar says:

      Fascinating post and contributions. I wrote a letter of complaint (to a borough council) using words such as:- oppugn, circumlocutory, gasconade, plenipotentiary, asinine, fantod, operose, wanchancy.
      The reply said that despite my over-articulated grievance, it would be looked into…
      Suffice to say a positive outcome resulted, but I’ve never written with such language again because that accusation of being over-articulate hit me hard, and rightly so. Toodle-pippingtons. (Doh!)

  9. I like singular ‘they’ best. That’s what I use. Swapping back and forth between ‘he’ and ‘she’ confuses things, I think.

  10. Stan says:

    Thanks, degglar. That’s quite an array of fancyisms; I guess it warranted the council’s comment, but the main thing is that they addressed the problem.

    Ashley: I find the switching technique a little distracting, but that could be because it’s unusual. Singular they generally works best for me too.

  11. David Morris says:

    3rd person singular ‘we’?
    Walking round a supermarket this evening I saw notices which read ‘Are you looking for a product? Ask one of our friendly staff and we will be happy to take you there’.

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