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

Good Writing Saves Money

Poor writing and communication cost millions each year in wasted time and lost business opportunities.

  • In the USA, an estimated 30% of all business writing is produced to clarify or seek clarification of something already written.
  • A study by the Royal Mail in the UK estimated that British businesses lose up to £5 billion a year because of pretentious, inappropriate or error-ridden writing.

It is estimated that poor communications account for as much as 40% of the total costs of managing all business transactions.

Organisations spend a lot of money on websites and emails with information that many people simply cannot understand.

Huge savings

Companies regularly produce documents that are hard to read or even indecipherable, but good communication can lead to big savings:

  • Merely by redrafting manuals into plain English, General Electric saved $275,000 in one year.
  • The US Navy estimated that good English could save it up to $300 million every year.
  • By using plain English, British Telecom cut customer queries by 25%.
  • The Plain English Campaign has saved the British government an estimated £500 million in the last 20 years.

(Source: Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please – Joe Kimble)

  • A professional editor rewrote a sales letter for a bank. The redrafted letter brought in an extra $11 million of new business.

(Source: Plain English Campaign)

Poor communication and poor writing in particular must cost billions globally each year. Yet little thought is given to the quality of writing. For example, there are excellent workshops for start-up companies that cover just about everything, such as setting up a website. But there’s nearly always a glaring omission: the importance of getting the words right.

A website designed to dazzle may look impressive, but if the copy on it is poor, the website is next to useless. A brochure may look good, but what if the words on it are confusing, riddled with errors, lack punch, or omit essential details?

In the business world, the bottom line is not just about getting your finances right; it’s also about getting your words right.

Posted in Communication, Writing Tagged with: , ,

Your CV checklist

In hard times, hundreds of people may apply for a single job. Employers get more applications than they can easily handle. If a rapid scan of a CV or covering letter reveals even a few basic spelling errors, it is likely that it will be cast instantly aside, unread. For that reason, if you are applying for a job, it is imperative that you submit a first-class CV and covering letter.

In case it might be useful, I’ve prepared a CV checklist that covers the main issues:

CV checklist


  • Restrict your CV to 2 or 3 A4 pages if possible.
  • Make sure that the lay-out is clear and well ordered, and makes the text easy to read.
  • The font, type sizes, size of headings, spacing and use of bold type and italics should be consistent throughout.
  • Use bullet points for lists, but do not have more than 7 or so in one list.
  • Keep related information on the same page.


  • Include your contact details: phone number, postal address and email address. Make sure that your email address is suitable; if not, set up a new one for your job applications.
  • Make sure that your profile is clear and concise.
  • List each job in chronological order, beginning with your most recent position.
  • Concentrate on your two most recent jobs, as employers will not be much interested in earlier ones.
  • List your job titles and the start and finish date of each position, and treat internal promotion as a new job.
  • List your (2 or 3) most important responsibilities and achievements in each position. Use strong verbs such as: surpassed, managed, implemented. Mention the number of staff reporting to you, if applicable.
  • List the main duties and skills that you can transfer to a new employer.
  • Make sure there are no gaps in your work history (if possible).
  • Mention any achievements outside your working life.

 Clarity and precision

  • Write in plain English and avoid jargon and buzz-words.
  • Make sure that the CV overall has a logical flow.
  • Use strong, active verbs (eg, not ‘was set up by me’ but ‘I set up’).
  • Make sure that the grammar and syntax are correct, and that there are no spelling errors. Do not rely on a spell-check (it will not distinguish, for example, between ‘form’ and ‘from’).

It is hard to proofread your own work, so ask a reliable person (better, two reliable people) to check it for you, or use a professional proofreader/editor.


Posted in Uncategorized

Written your monthly novel yet?

Recently, I came across the following boast on LinkedIn:

“I am a professional writer with thousands of books in circulation …”

Poor old James Joyce wrote only three or four!

Yes, it’s the age of ‘instant content creation’. But I rather like the words of Rilke in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge: “… with poems one accomplishes so little when one writes them early. One should hold off and gather sense and sweetness a whole life long, a long life if possible, and then, right at the end, one could perhaps write ten lines that are good.”

Milan Kundera wrote The Book of Laughter and Forgetting long before the days of a few million blogs coming online every second. But the trend of ‘graphomania’ is not a new one:

“The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: ‘We are all writers!’

“For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words.

“One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

Got to go now. I need to send my 52nd novel off to the publisher …

Posted in Writing Tagged with: ,

Listening goes both ways

It’s often said that people who provide services should listen to their clients, should become familiar with their needs. You have to not only listen to what they are saying but also sometimes to read between the lines. Professional arrogance – ‘I know what clients want better than they know themselves’ – will eventually lead to zero clients.

“Lousy copy, please, stuffed with keywords …”

It’s not so often said that clients need to listen to those who provide services. One website owner who contacted me wanted his web copy stuffed with keywords. I explained that not only would this not be effective as search-engine optimization, but it would lead to bad copy – contrived, boring to read, and unreadable. I sent him a sample of good copy, but it was not what he wanted. He had no doubt that what he needed was unreadable copy that the increasingly sophisticated search engines would reject without hesitation.

Following recent search-engine improvements, websites with third-rate articles were badly hit. Affiliate marketers and others are learning that there’s no substitute for good, useful information, and that there’s no point trying to trick the search engines. It’s a welcome development. Writers aren’t at their best when they’re told to instruct, entertain – and stuff the text with keywords.

“A dollop of cream for a dog’s dinner”

Another client asked me to write copy for a website that was a mess. I gently pointed out the problems and suggested improvements. It’s hard to write copy for a home page that fails to make clear what the purpose of the website is; is aimed at two or three different types of visitors, and is a chaos of items all demanding attention. I did not hear from the client again. I suspect that he was so attached to a website into which he had put a lot of time and thought that he was unwilling to hear what I was saying – and it was what any visitor to his site would have told him, if asked.

So yes, people who provide services must listen to their client, but the client should also listen, or may waste a lot of time and money.

Posted in Uncategorized

Our language lunacy as defined by Orwell

In my last post, I quoted some examples of linguistic lunacy – commingled containers, access controller, disposable mucus recovery unit, etc – and wondered what Orwell would think.

In his Politics and the English Language essay, he offered “five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written”. Apart from their “avoidable ugliness”, he wrote, two qualities were common to all five examples.

“The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision.” What was most characteristic of modern English prose, he added, was a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” – abstractions, hackneyed turns of phrase, phrases “tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”.

He uses three categories to define the problem: dying metaphors (eg, stand shoulder to shoulder with), operators or false verbal limbs (eg, serve the purpose of), and pretentious diction (eg, phenomenon, constitute, expedite, ameliorate).

Innocent days! Is that really the worst he could come up with, back in 1946? No commingled containers and suboptimal outcomes?

Our speciality – pretentious diction

What is striking, though, is that our current linguistic disease fits mainly into his third category, pretentious diction. Yes, we have our plethora of hackneyed words and phrases (touch base, take a rain check, push the envelope) and love our false verbal limbs, but above all we specialise in pretentious diction.

Often, it’s because we’re using words to (as Orwell puts it) “dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements”. John Leo gives an example of this: the terms ‘intellectual harassment’ or ‘semantic violence’, used to describe simple criticism.

There’s no biased judgement, though, behind ‘disposable mucus recovery units’ and ‘ground-mounted confirmatory route markers’. There’s just an insane compulsion to load ordinary things with a huge weight of scientific and technological credibility.

In the Leo examples quoted in my last post, that is the common trend. Orwell’s “pretentious diction”, in its virulent modern form, is ‘pretentious scientifico-technological diction’. We might expect it in one of the more insecure disciplines such as sociology, but some of the worst sinners are people writing about English literature.

To explain it all, I expect we’d have to examine our worship of science and technology, and of course our analysis would have to be rigorously evidence-based. But that will have to be for another day, because I’ve got to go and do some domestic engineering.

Posted in Jargon, Language, Words Tagged with: , , , , ,

Language lunacy – what would Orwell think?

The English language today – or why George Orwell would need his mucus recovery unit if he had not experienced a suboptimal outcome

George Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, begins: “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way …”

He wrote that in 1946. If language was “in a bad way” then, what way is it now in? According to John Leo, a writer and contributing editor at The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, it’s in a “much worse” way.

In a recent article, ‘On Good Writing‘, adapted from a speech he gave at Ursino College in Pennsylvania, he refers to Orwell’s essay and comments: “Orwell offered five examples of sub-literate prose by known writers. But these examples don’t look as ghastly to us as they did to Orwell, because language is so much worse today.”

To back up his claim, he offers some examples and his translations:

commingled containers – (the label on a bin at Leo’s local recycling centre) otherwise known as ‘cans and bottles’

suboptimal outcome – if ‘achieved’ by students, it means that they failed, Leo writes; in a hospital, it means that the patient died.

hull loss – sometimes used by the airline industry, meaning ‘a plane crashed’.

access controller – a doorman

director of first impressions – a receptionist

thermal therapy unit – a hospital term meaning an ice bag

disposable mucus recovery unit – also a hospital term, which, as you’d expect, refers to a miracle of modern technology: a box of paper hankies.

ground-mounted confirmatory route markers – (found in a US government document) yes, you got it: road signs

non-traditional students – older students

Leo also tells of city officials in Oxford, England who decided to “examine the feasibility of creating a structure in Hinksey Park from indigenous vegetation”. They were, he says, “talking about planting a tree to get some shade”. He offers his own version: “a solar-shielding park structure from low-rise indigenous vegetative material”.

All this reminds me of what an English woman, who had just moved to Calgary in Canada, told me years ago: when she was asked for her occupation at a bank, she said “Housewife”, and the bank official wrote down “Domestic engineer”.

In comparison with these horrors, the examples that Orwell gave are mild. If the state of English in 1946 distressed him, he’d have a fit if he could see how pathologically it has declined.

What’s the reason for all this linguistic lunacy? See my next post.

Posted in Editing, Jargon, Language, Words Tagged with: , , , , ,

How official language masks human heartbreak

Miriam Alli is a Nigerian woman who lives in Ireland with her five children – who are all Irish-born and Irish citizens. Juwon is 11, Arafat is eight, twins Kenny and Tai are five, and Shukra is six months.

Earlier this year, their father, Kabir, was taken away by officers of the Garda National Immigration Bureau and deported. Kabir is one of many fathers who came to Ireland seeking asylum a few years after their wives moved here and gave birth.

The official and legal justifications

So what did the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, have to say? He said that Ireland operated “probably one of the most progressive immigration laws in western Europe” but “our system must also be robust”.

The High Court rejected a challenge – based mainly on the Irish Constitution’s protection of families and children – to Kabir’s deportation order in December 2009. Judge Maureen Clark said she was satisfied that deporting Kabir would not “impact in an excessive way on the personal and family rights of his wife and children as there were no insurmountable obstacles to their going with him to Nigeria”.

She also said that Miriam would not be “excessively inconvenienced if her husband returned to Nigeria”. After all, she pointed out, Miriam had managed to live without him for three years.

Let’s see what “progressive but robust” immigration laws and “no excessive impact” on the rights of wife and children mean in human terms.

The family’s feelings

The family were interviewed by Irish Times Social Affairs correspondent Jamie Smyth (3 April 2010, Irish Times). Eleven-year-old Juwon said he greatly missed his father. “He used to play football with me every day and help with the local team that I play for here in Lusk.”

Five-year-old Tai said: “I like Ireland and my school, but I miss my daddy. I want him back.”

Miriam does not want to return to Nigeria. “The education they get in Ireland is much better than in Nigeria. My children are also integrated into Irish life and I have to think of them first, so we will stay.”

She added: “The children have cried a lot since Kabir was taken away, and they get angry a lot.”

Barnardos advocacy director Norah Gibbons commented: “One day your father is there with you in the family and then a hand reaches in and removes him. This is bound to make a child feel unsafe. It could lead to disruptive behaviour, poor performance at school and make it difficult for a remaining parent.”

She added: “We claim in this country to cherish all children equally.”

Henry and Gillian

In another case (also reported in the same article by Jamie Smyth), Henry Olabode was bundled on to a charter jet at Dublin Airport in March, and flown to Lagos. He had come to Ireland in 2007 and applied for asylum, claiming his life was in danger because he had campaigned against hostage-taking in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria.

While waiting to be ‘processed’, he met an Irish woman, Gillian, who lives in Athlone with two children from a previous relationship. She and Henry married shortly before his claim was rejected. They lived together for nearly one year.

Gillian told Jamie Smyth: “I met him when I was out for a few drinks with friends, and we clicked right away. They took him away from me without interviewing us or asking any questions about our marriage.

“I’m heartbroken and will fight to get him back into the country. This is unfair. Why can’t an Irish citizen choose who to marry?”

Stop complaining, Gillian. Irish immigration laws may be robust, but they are progressive. And remember: you may be heartbroken, but you are not excessively heartbroken.

Posted in Language, Words Tagged with: , , ,

The Queen’s English as spoken by Ryanair’s O’Leary

Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary is a remarkable character (love him, hate him or love/hate him). He’s remarkable both in what he’s achieved (love or hate his methods) and in the way he talks to the world. Here are some examples:

Plane English a la Michael O’Leary

“We need a recession. We’ve had 10 years of growth. A recession gets rid of crappy loss-making airlines and it means we can buy aircraft more cheaply.” (3 November 2008)

In economy no frills; in business class it’ll all be free – including the blowjobs. (Talking of plans for a transatlantic service: 2008)

You don’t see the government confiscating lipsticks and gel-filled bras on the London Underground. Most of them couldn’t identify a gel-filled bra if it jumped up and bit them. (Complaining about increased airport security checks: 2006)

At the moment the ice is free, but if we could find a way of targeting a price on it, we would. (October 2005)

Every idiot who gets fired in the industry shows up as a consultant somewhere. Shoot consultants and advertising agency specialists. (October 2005)
I’m probably just an obnoxious little bollocks. Who cares? (2006)

Some people are so ideologically opposed to O’Leary that nothing he says could amuse them. Perhaps, though, they might admit that he always achieves rapid lift-off.

Official spokespersonese, Ryanair-style

In contrast, some of his spokespeople indulge in the kind of officialese that is so loaded with heavy baggage the verbal machine remains firmly stuck on the ground.

Recently, a 52-year-old ex-Viking from Norway had a little problem about a “chicken premium sandwich” he was presented with on a flight from Berlin to Rygge. Since the meat was made out of rubber, he refused to pay for it. The flight attendant threatened to call the police. He assumed she was joking and fell asleep.

At Rygge airport, three men in orange police jackets came on board and took him off for questioning. The Rygge police confirmed later, reportedly with chuckles (yes, Norwegians are capable of chuckling), that they’d never been called out for a passenger complaining about a sandwich. No charges.

A Ryanair spokesperson explained: “The captain on flight FR8904 requested police assistance on arrival after a passenger became disruptive in flight. This matter was addressed with the passenger by police on arrival. Ryanair crew only request such assistance when deemed absolutely necessary based on their assessment of the disruptive passenger behaviour and their reading of the situation.”

No, it’s not the worst example of officialese, but it’s surprising (and inconsistent) that bossman O’Leary doesn’t charge his spokespeople for each wasted word, and also for each long word that is not “deemed absolutely necessary”.

How would O’Leary himself have put it?

“We had to call the police to deal with this Norwegian bollocks who’d refused to pay for his *x!king sandwich. Yeah, maybe we flew off the handle a bit, but what do these gobshites expect on a Ryanair plane – a Michelin five-star?”

Posted in Jargon, Language, Words Tagged with: , , , ,

Hey, let’s get the Americans to speak the Queen’s English

Did you know that there’s an organisation called the Queen’s English Society?

No? Nor did I, until today.

On its website, it shouts out its key message – in capital letters (but gentlemen shouldn’t shout, so I won’t inflict them on you): “Good English matters – the world uses it – we must keep it safe from declining standards.”

The Queen’s English Society was established about 40 years ago, but it has now announced (June 2010) its plans to set up The Academy of English, an English version of the French Academie francaise, aimed at keeping the language pure.

The society’s press release said: “Other languages, French and Spanish for example, have supreme authorities that try, while moving with the times, to define what is good and acceptable usage and what is not. They do not stop the language from changing over the years, but they do provide a measure of linguistic discipline and try to retain valid and useful new terms, while rejecting passing fads.”

The academy would “set an accepted standard of good English” in our “hectic, modern, digitalised world.” It would protect the Queen’s English from alien impurities, bastardisations and text-speak horrors.

Poxridden and pathetic

Stephen Fry was slightly dubious about the idea. He tweeted: “Of all the foolish, ignorant, poxridden, pathetic and tragically misbegotten notions, this one beats them all.”

A London Times report gives an insight into the mentality of the founder of the academy, Martin Estinel; he said he still used the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘happy’ but “grudgingly accepted that its newer definition was now in the dictionary”.

There are a number of problems about this plan, apart from the poor use of English in the press release (what, for example, is a ‘fad’ that does not pass?).

One of those problems is that English is spoken by quite a number of people, who are not, incidentally, subjects of the woman of German origin who sits on the throne of England, such as more than 250 million Americans, 79 million Nigerians and 49 million Filipinos.

It also happens to be a near-universal language, spoken by millions more as a second language.

In their use of the term ‘the Queen’s English’, the people behind the academy seem to think that English is owned in some way by a feudal relic who rules over a small corner of the English-speaking world (and who probably still believes in ‘the divine right of kings’). Not any more, chaps.

The anarchic millions

Certainly, current English displays a lot of sloppiness and execrable jargon, but it’s not likely that a group of stodgy verbal police will be able to exert much control over those anarchic millions. In particular, it’s unlikely that the academy will make much headway in getting all those millions of American linguistic vandals to speak the Queen’s English, since they and their forebears have been doing their own independent thing now for a few centuries. (For Pete’s sake, they can’t even spell ‘colour’.)

No, the new academy won’t even be able to control the tongues of the majority of English people, who refuse to ‘speak proper’ (after all, the BBC has to keep them off the airwaves in case they offend polite people). But they’ll go on doing their thing, committing appalling grammatical and syntactical crimes in strange local accents.

Ah well, maybe English will survive. After all, it’s a uniquely rich language thanks to the fact that it’s really two languages – a Germanic foundation hugely enriched by the French during the century or two when they ruled England. And then there are all those added riches contributed by foreigners who immigrated to Britain and that were absorbed during the centuries that English wandered around the world.

Yes, English will go on growing and changing and surviving linguistic crimes as it continues to spread – and Mr Estinel is going to be very ungay when he realises that there’s nothing he can do about it.

Posted in Language Tagged with: , ,