Annual ‘Bull Award’ for gobbledegook! | Sunday Observer

Annual ‘Bull Award’ for gobbledegook!

4 October, 2020

Gobbledegook is informal complicated language, especially in an official or technical document that is impossible or difficult to understand. The Oxford English Dictionary says the word ‘gobbledegook’ probably comes from the sound of a turkey’s gobble. It is used to characterise complex, bureaucratic language which results in garbled understanding on the part of the reader. Today, the word is used to show disapproval.

The term ‘gobbledegook’ includes popularised technical words that cloud the minds alike of those who use them and those who read them. Before the term ‘gobbledegook’ came into vogue, an attempt had been made to coin a new word for that style. Ivor Brown invented ‘barnacular’, ‘gangantuan’ and ‘puddler’ in England and Maury Maverick coined ‘gobbledegook’ in the United States. However, ‘gobbledegook’ remains a pejorative name for the style of writing of which the former Civil Service and now the Administrative Service are supposed to be the chief exponents.

Carey Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology, says, “More and more jargon is creeping into our daily lives, especially at work. He cites two of his favourites: ‘Iceing’ – experiencing an Involuntary Career Event – means getting the sack. A ‘drains up’ meeting is designed to unblock bottlenecks. Jargon is so commonplace that a subversive game is sweeping through business meetings ‘Bullshit Bingo’.

American slang

According to Cooper, most of the jargon comes from the United States. He says, “Globalisation and increasing contact with American businesses mean that British companies are exposed to this kind of management speak and then start to use it themselves.” John Simpson, Chief Editor of the Oxford Dictionary which constantly monitors changes in the English language, said, people picked up their vocabulary from many sources including management gurus, the Internet and American slang.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” wrote Oscar Wilde about life. The same applies to language as well. We all make mistakes. When a reader pointed out a mistake in the editorial of a national newspaper, the editor immediately corrected it and apologised. At least some of us including editors try to maintain standards. However, it is not easy, and the best may stumble. Thus the worthy Irving Howe wrote on the front page of the New York Times Book Review (April 9, 1978), about “main protagonists.” Now, the protagonist is the main actor in something and has, since Greek times, always been in the singular. “Protagonists” is incorrect (unless you refer to the protagonists of two or more dramas), and “main protagonists” (main main actors) is redundant to boot. This is a double-barrelled error, but even the ablest among us, harried by the exigencies of rapid-fire journalism, are not immune to lapses.

Jargon is worse than such occasional lapses. Certain expressions such as ‘a low hanging fruit 360 degree branding, dis-information’ and ‘process engineering’ found in business magazines and newspapers are making the office world increasingly incomprehensible. Most of these expressions have been around long enough to become accepted in the workplace and in meetings. Some of the most favoured include ‘helicopter view’ (taking an overview of a problem), ‘talking off line’ (continuing a discussion after a formal meeting) and running a ’sanity check’ (asking somebody if they are all right). Advertising agencies use such expressions freely. According to a well-known recruitment firm, they have infiltrated even traditional sectors such as financial services.

Security blanket

Too often jargon is used by people to trick others into believing they know more than they actually do; or exploited as a security blanket to give them the feeling of belonging to an elite. In spite of the efforts of the Plain English Campaign, jargon is still very much alive and kicking. Here are some jargons ordinary readers may not understand at once: ‘A visitor uplift facility’(a tourist mountain train), ‘ambient non-combatant personnel’ (war refugees), ‘enthusiasm guidance motivators’ (cheer leaders), ‘an unpremised business person’ (a street trader), ‘an ambient replenishment assistant’ (supermarket shelf stacker), and ‘frame-supported tension structures’ (tents).

Gobbledegook has spilled into the political arena. The former US President George Bush Snr was an acknowledged master of gobbledegook. He was capable of using the language not to reveal but to obscure. Here he is chatting with one of the astronauts on the space shuttle Atlantis: “How was the actual deployment thing?” he asks. And again, this time in full flow when he asked if he would look for ideas on improving education during a forthcoming trip abroad. “Well, I’m going to kick that one into the end zone of the Secretary of Education. But, yes, we have all – he travels a good deal, goes abroad. We have a lot of people in the department that does that. We’re having an international – this is not as much education as dealing with environment – a big international conference coming up. And we get it all the time, exchanges of ideas. But I think we’ve got – we set out there – and I want to give credit to your Governor McWherter and to your former Governor, Lamar Alexander – we’ve gotten great ideas for a national goal program from – in this country – from the governors who were responding to, maybe, the principal of your high school for heaven’s sake.”

In 1944, Maury Maverick, a Texas congressman, became so angry about the bloated bureaucratic language in memos he received that he described it as ‘gobbledegook.’ He promptly issued an order to all his subordinates: “Be short and say what you are talking about. Let’s stop pointing up programs, finalizing contracts that stem from district, regional or Washington levels. No more patterns, effectuating, dynamics. Anyone using the words ‘activation’ or ‘implementation’ will be shot.” More than half a century later, the Maverick edict has had little effect.

‘Witter words’

‘Witter words’ are a key ingredient of gobbledegook. The following passage taken from a speech delivered by former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, is liberally littered with ‘witter words’: “And that tends to mean at times if you want to put it, there is no point in running away from it, it tends to mean at times that there’s a lack of specifity, or if you want to put it another way, there’s a range of options which are put which are there to accommodate that indisputable fact about the social democratic parties such as ours.” (National Times 22 November 1985). Hawke had so perfected his ability to say almost nothing in the maximum number of words that the style became known as ‘Hawkespeak,. It is another version of gobbledegook.

Apart from leading politicians and businessmen, even ordinary people use gobbledegook to show how clever they are. However, it can rapidly backfire if you obviously do not have a clue what you are talking about.

The Plain English Campaign, an organisation that attempts to persuade companies to communicate straightforwardly said consumers are fed up with jargon and gobbledegook. They want things made clear and simple. The organization runs an annual Bull Award for gobbledegooks!

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