Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

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.


Houston, we’ve had a probletunity, going forward

February 25, 2010

Management jargon and political gobbledygook exert a perverse pull on my attention, despite their often deadening inanity. At its best, this vacuous form of verbiage demands a dubious but undeniable skill (or key competency, if you prefer). When confronted by it, I am torn between fascination, mild horror, and the urge to fall suddenly, disgustedly asleep. It can be both oppressive and impressive that someone can utter so much so easily, yet say so little.

This is the realm of advanced output impacts and feedback-based linkage operations. It is where key deliverables are leveraged, values are strategically implemented (then iterated), and frameworks are structurally reinforced — and synergised, if they’re lucky. Every problem is a probletunity.* If it is cross-functionally achievable, so much the better.

That these phrases are largely interchangeable underscores their basic meaninglessness. Yes, I made them up, but who would notice this in a Monday morning meeting? They are, in the main, a pretence at sense, an aggregation of abstracted affectations that would fit snugly into many a mystifying mission statement or corporate design manual.

Jargon can serve a useful purpose as a shorthand for specialists. But it’s getting out of hand when change is a systems enhancement, wind is a wind event, and newborn babies are — I wish I were joking — OB products. Hamlet didn’t suffer an existential crisis: he experienced liveability issues. One does not learn: one actions knowledge-based self-education training.

In The Making of a Counter Culture, Theodore Roszak warned of the deeply estranging effect of “chilly jargons and technical terms that replace sensuous speech”. Though Roszak was dismantling the myth of objective consciousness, his point holds for mumbo jumbo regardless of its objective. Nonsense for its own sake is one thing; nonsense masquerading as reason, news, or official policy is another matter altogether.

Weasel words and their ill-judged ilk are Don Watson’s specialist subject. Watson writes books and essays on lexical mangling; his dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant & Management Jargon, which inspired some of the examples above, is a scathing collection intended to induce irritation, curiosity, laughter and rage — which it does, sometimes all at once, at least in this reader.

Watson also gives talks on language and what he sees as its contemporary abuse. Yesterday I watched one of these talks, called “Bendable Learnings” after his most recent book.

[Note: the image below is a screengrab, not a video or click-through.]

Watson’s speaking style is thoughtful and low-key, even deadpan, but also expressive. It doesn’t mask his passion for the glorious heights that language can reach, or his quiet fury with the lazy cynicism and artless absurdity of what he dubs a “language without possibility”.

He discusses, among other things, gobbledygook’s inhibitory effect on thinking — an especially dangerous development for anyone in a position of power — and he cautions: “Once you start talking like this, there’s no going back.” Instead, like salmon, “we now go forwards all the time.”

If you have an hour to spare, it’s well worth a watch or a listen (various formats are available). It’s also good for some mordant laughs, which is perhaps the most appropriate response to gobbledygook, going forward.

* One of the least elegant portmanteau words I’ve ever seen.