Gobbledygook: Why Do We Gobbledy Gobble?

Why gobbledygook? Why do people speak or write it? In almost all cases that I can think of, it’s because (a) their main aim is not to communicate or (b) they don’t ask: how will I put this so my audience or readers will understand?

Where the main aim is not to communicate, they may want to say something without actually saying anything (for example, a politician evading a difficult question); they may want others to think they are important or that they are saying something important, or they may be insecure and feel that simple language is not adequate.

The two examples below fall into the second category (b).

Is this a fare deal?

How’s this for a reader-friendly message from British Airways to its customers?

“Note cancellations before departure fare is refundable. If combining a non-refundable fare with a refundable fare only the Y/C/J-class half return amount can be refunded. After departure fare is refundable. If combining a non-refundable fare with a refundable fare refund the difference/if any/between the fair paid and the applicable normal BA oneway fare.”

That is how the airline once explained its “charges for changes and cancellations”.

“Gobbledygook may indicate a failure to think clearly, a contempt for one’s clients, or more probably a mixture of both” – Michael Shanks, former chairman to Britain’s National Consumer Council

In the dark with Silverlight

“Microsoft Silverlight is a cross-browser, cross platform, and cross-device plug-in for delivering the next generation of .NET based media experiences and rich interactive applications for the Web. By using Silverlight’s support for .NET, High Definition video, cost-effective advanced streaming, unparalleled high-resolution interactivity with Deep Zoom technology, and controls, businesses can reach out to new markets across the Web, desktop, and devices.”

This explanation from some years back was aimed at the general user. To be fair, Shank’s definition of gobbledygook (see above) does not apply, but that in the New Oxford American Dictionary does: “language that is … made unintelligible by excessive use of abstruse technical terms …”

Other terms for gobbledygook of this kind are ‘officialese’ and ‘bureaucratese’. And then there’s ‘legalese’. Michael Shanks (quoted above), characterised professional gobbledygook as sloppy jargon intended to confuse non-specialists. However, there may not be any actual intention to confuse. Professional gobbledygook is often committed because of habit or laziness, or because it’s the jargon of the group.

According to Michael Quinion on his World Wide Words website, gobbledygook was coined in May 1944 by Texas Congressman Maury Maverick when criticising the obscure language used by other politicians. He is reported as alluding to a turkey, “always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity.” Contemporary reports, however, identify Maverick as saying, in March 1944, “Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up.”

Posted in Communication, Jargon, Language

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