Gobbledygook

May 23, 2012 | Language

Some days I have a definite idea of what I want to talk about in this blog. While on others, I just wing it until I come across something that tweaks my fancy. Today, I’ve been tweaked by Gobbledygook. Not easy to spell, or, by definition, understand!

Gobbledygook is the term used for text that is particularly convoluted or full of jargon, rendering it hard to understand or even incomprehensible. Business and bureaucracies have been particular culprits over the years and there is even a formula – SMOG (Simple Measure Of Gobbledygook) – which estimates how educated a person would need to be to understand a piece of writing.

The term was first coined by Maury Maverick, chairman of U.S. Smaller War Plants Corporation during World War II. Inventing the word to imitate a turkey noise, he used it in a 1944 memo banning “gobbledygook language”.

Another term we might use would be It’s all Greek to me! and this is a theme across many languages. The Greeks themselves might accuse the communicator of speaking Arabic, or Chinese. In fact, many languages refer to it as speaking Chinese; in Spanish hablar en chino and in Hungarian nekem ez kínai – it’s Chinese for me. Germans call it Fachchinesisch or technical Chinese and the Turkish go in a slightly different direction with  the phrase Bu konuya Fransız kaldım (I remained French against this topic).

A great example of Gobbleygook is a sentence taken from a government directive concerning blackout procedures during World War II:
“Such preparations shall be made as will completely obscure all Federal and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reason of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by black-out construction or by termination of the illumination.”

Or you could just say (as Franklin D. Roosevelt did):
“Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and, in buildings where they can let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights. “

And on a final note:
“Oh, meltdown. It’s one of those annoying buzzwords. We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus.”  Charles Montgomery Burns, The Simpsons