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.

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“Some superb entropy” in the language of spam

April 6, 2013

A recent post by Mark Liberman at Language Log showcased the following fine spam comment:

1. What a data of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious knowledge on the topic of unexpected emotions.

It reminded me of one in my own collection (yes, I have a collection):

2. What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of valuable experience regarding unpredicted emotions.

The parallels are blatant, and confirm my supposition that spammers (or the algorithms they employ) often use thesauruses to auto-replace words and generate variation, if only superficial, perhaps the better to avoid being blocked. Here’s another congruent pair:

Read the rest of this entry »


Weasel words and skunked words

June 13, 2011

Time for a recap of my recent writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Near the end of April, I took a look at “skunked” words. This is a term I came across first in Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage; it refers to words whose meaning or usage is so disputed that using them is likely to bother or distract readers. Among these words are enormity, fulsome, and “Hopefully disinterested”:

Words are slippery. Their meanings can mutate and multiply, differing according to where and how they are used. The word defence, for instance, will suggest different things to a sportsperson, a psychologist, a lawyer, a doctor, and a military strategist. Our relationship with a given word depends on our history with it and what it connotes for us. Yet for the most part we can communicate straightforwardly with others, since context supplies information that reduces the chances of misunderstanding. Now and then, however, the signal turns to noise. [more]

May was Macmillan Dictionary’s month of business English, so a few of my articles fall under this category. My particular focus is on business jargon; like any other kind of jargon, it is inevitable and not inherently objectionable. However, it can also degenerate into near-meaningless gobbledygook (a phenomenon I’ve written about on this blog before). “The business of gobbledegook” is a short assessment of this kind of language and the problems it can generate:

When we communicate in a business environment, obscure jargon is an occupational hazard. Given how specialised are many industries and work environments, it’s natural that people will use a certain amount of terminology that won’t always make much sense to outsiders. The trouble is when this language is used in inappropriate contexts, or when it becomes so vague and jumbled as to be impenetrable even to its target audience. [more]

That article includes a few lines of parody-gobbledygook; next came a full article of it, “Critical learnings, going forward”, which I’ve already introduced here. A competition was held to translate the text into more meaningful English, and the submissions were a delight to read.

My follow-up post, “Weaselly recognised”, continues the theme by examining how weasel words, jargon and periphrasis are sometimes used to euphemise awkward facts. It explains why this is not helpful, and stresses some of the benefits of plain language:

Plain English is a frank and straightforward style that does not lend itself readily to expressing longwinded nonsense and hiding unpleasant facts. It is well suited to conveying meaning clearly and without guile, thereby showing a measure of respect for people’s intelligence, feelings, and capacity for dealing with difficult truths and situations – not “challengeful reality-based outcomes, going forward”. Our brains do a lot of hard work decoding language into sense; in business, it doesn’t pay to multiply this workload. [more]

Tucked in among these posts is one about the word friend and how online life has influenced its meanings. “Your flexible ‘friend’” describes how the word

straddles the digital and physical environments in a way that reflects its great flexibility and complex usage. Over the last few years its use online, particularly in social networks, has popularised the transitive verb friend . . . along with derived forms like defriend . . . and unfriend. . . . We all adapt to this shifting terrain in different ways, redefining friend and recategorising friendships to suit our habits, purposes, and feelings. And although our online activities have brought new dimensions to the word friend, the disputes and discussions about what it means are just a new phase – and perhaps an amplification – of age-old debates. [more]

This article was also published on Ragan.com under the title “The many meanings of ‘friend’”.

You’ll find all my articles for Macmillan Dictionary Blog on this page.


Critical learnings: a competition

May 25, 2011

There’s a competition that might interest you on Macmillan Dictionary Blog today. I’ve written a parody of corporate communication laced with buzzwords, management jargon, ridiculous metaphors and assorted gobbledygook. Here’s an excerpt:

Parties affected downstream are encouraged to utilise their forward thinking hats and realign their tool belts to the non-ongoing contract situation within a short timeframe totality. We anticipate dynamic new overarching metrics of holistic staff wellbeingness at the end of the day. Surfing where the waves are should galvanise a global blue-sky modality that will roll out and trickle down the Monday mood mountain into the value valley.

The challenge (and the fun) for readers is to translate the post into a more comprehensible form of business English. You can do it in a few sentences, or – if your productivity drivers are optimised – in more satisfying detail. Push the editors’ imagination buttons, and you could win a Macmillan dictionary of your choice.


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.


Plain English and Golden Bulls

December 9, 2009

Yesterday the Plain English Campaign announced the winners of its Golden Bull awards 2009, a dubious honour given to individuals and companies who have unleashed the best gobbledegook upon an unfortunate reading public. And by ‘best’ I mean ‘worst’.

Unfortunately, the page is littered with erroneous apostrophes. Part of the problem seems to be a formatting glitch, which I’ve noted before: WordPress and some other self-publishing platforms automatically curl apostrophes and inverted commas (AKA quotation marks), sometimes the wrong way. That the apostrophes have been transformed into double inverted commas is another matter:

But that’s enough cosmetic griping. And since I drafted this post, a representative of the Plain English Campaign has contacted me to say they will soon fix the problem.

Among this year’s Golden Bull winners were Coca Cola, who “outsource some aspects of our Finance transactional processing activities”, and the UK Department of Health, who report that primary disease prevention “has been described as refocusing upstream to stop people falling in the waters of disease”. I must admit I like this description, in the same way that I like terrible poetry, but I understand why its use by the British government should invite censure and even ridicule.

I will pause a moment, to allow your nervous system to ready itself for a final example:

Neither the execution and delivery by the Consultant of this Agreement nor the consummation by it of any of the transactions contemplated hereby, requires, with respect to it, the consent or approval of the giving of notice to, the registration, with the record or filing of any document with, or the taking of any other action in respect of any government authority, except such as are not yet required (as to which it has no reason to believe that the same will not be readily obtainable in the ordinary course of business upon due application therefore) or which have been duly obtained and are in full force and effect.

This snippet of extreme legalese, a stupefyingly convoluted clause in a contractors’ agreement, comes courtesy of the Dublin Airport Authority. It is so tortuous that it is virtually incomprehensible, yet one suspects that what it purports to convey is really quite straightforward. Legal diction, however, is “almost necessarily obscure”, as Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words.

If it is readily intelligible, so much the better; but it is far more important that it should yield its meaning accurately that that it should yield it on first reading, and the legal draftsman cannot afford to give much attention, if any, to euphony or literary elegance. What matters most to him is that no one will succeed in persuading a court of law that his words bear a meaning he did not intend, and, if possible, that no one will think it worth while to try.
All this means that his drafting is not to be judged by normal standards of good writing…

Double standards therefore do apply, and with good reason, but problems arise when legal jargon is selected for its own sake, or because one suffers from jargonitis — an inability to avoid using jargon even when plain English alternatives are possible and appropriate. The condition may be contagious.

Since I am not a lawyer, I will not try to translate the Dublin Airport Authority’s example into readable and unambiguous English. I will instead refer readers to an earlier post on Sentence first, concerning the plain style and its advantages in formal writing. ‘Notes on the plain style’ was in fact my second ever post on this blog, following a brief introduction, and it received its first comment quite recently. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a comment from a new reader is infinitely better than a Golden Bull Award.

[For more like this, click on gobbledegook or plain English in the tag cloud on the right-hand side of this page.]


Your cooperation in reading this blog post is requested

August 7, 2009

This sign stands in Kennedy Park, Eyre Square, Galway. As I passed, it cried out to be criticised, and who am I to yield right of wail?

Stan Carey - Galway City Council sign on "the playing of football"

First: Why write The playing of football instead of simply Playing football? If it was an attempt to sound more authoritative, it failed: it sounds awkward and turgid, exemplifying what Ernest Gowers called abstractitis. This condition is widespread and habit-forming, and it looks bad on municipal signs, which ought to convey information plainly and unfussily.

Next: Why is there an elaborate request that people obey the order? Was the font too small, and was padding therefore required to fill the blank space? Maybe the second line sprung from gobbledygook’s formidable ability to infiltrate the simplest of messages. Can you imagine if every sign accommodated this kind of prolixity? Instead of No entry we would be blessed with:

Entry into this building is prohibited. In the interest of security your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

Instead of Slow children (already a strange sign, but no matter):

The deceleration of your vehicle is mandatory. In the interest of children’s lives your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

Instead of Keep off the grass:

The taking of walks on this grass is prohibited. In the interest of – oh, we don’t know why. But your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

As an attempt at politeness, it neither works nor helps. What would work is if such verbiage were omitted outright, and what would help is if more green areas were provided for outdoor activities in the city. (But the latter is an argument for elsewhere, and involves many more parties and factors.)

Even if the council had a good reason for their vague justification, they didn’t have to half-fill the sign with gobbledygook. They could have appended “in the interest of the public” to the first line and left it at that. So instead of:

The playing of football on this green area is prohibited. In the interest of the public your co-operation in complying with this order is requested.

they could have written, in 14 words instead of 25:

Playing football on this green area is prohibited in the interest of the public.

or plainer still, in five words:

No football in this park.

Whether or not the public agree with the decree, they are likely to appreciate being addressed directly and not having their time wasted by logorrhoeic fudge.