An (occasionally irreverent) look at . . .

LANGUAGE - A Nurturing Potential series


Contributed by Sep Meyer[1]


What is gobbledygook?

There are many definitions.  Starting with Stuart Chase, the tribute to whom in this issue of Nurturing Potential, sparked off this article - he defined it as the way most writers over-complicate writing to make elementary thoughts hard to understand. He uses government agencies and corporations as examples of people who over-complicate their writing. He writes that ". . . it means using two, or three, or ten words in the place of one, or using a five-syllable word where a single syllable would suffice."

Sir Ernest Gowers[2], who has also featured regularly in this series of articles, preferred the term officialese.  This is logical, given that his book was published as a "guide and reference book to the use of English for official and other purposes", and that the Oxford English Dictionary defines "officialese" as "language supposedly characteristic of officials or official documents, turgid or pedantic official prose".  Charitably, and somewhat uncharacteristically, Gowers writes, in the epilogue to his book: "It is reasonable to attribute those [faults of style] of officialese in the main to the peculiar difficulties with which official writers have to contend . . . much of what they write has to be devoted to the almost impossible task of translating the language of the law, which is obscure in order that it may be unambiguous, into terms that are simple and yet free from ambiguity."

Fowler's Modern English Usage (1998 edition) describes gobbledygook as "official, professional, or pretentious verbiage or jargon", differentiating it from officialese simply by the suggestion that the former is American-English, while the latter is British-English, but adding that the term is now in general use in both forms of the language.

J.K. Rowling has adopted the word gobbledygook to describe the language spoken by goblins in her Harry Potter series of books.  Given the ever-increasing popularity of her books, and the ever-decreasing standard of language being taught in our schools, I would hazard the guess that hers might ultimately be regarded as the definitive meaning.  What is taken to be  progress is sometimes sadly retrograde.

The language invented by comedian Stanley Unwin may also be considered gobbledygook, although it is more generally referred to as Unwinese.  His career spanned several decades from the late 'fifties (he died in 2002).  Some of his inventions are given below, in the section covering examples of gobbledygook

An amusing aside is that when Lew Grade (Baron Grade), the show business impressario, heard Unwin's character speaking Unwinese in an episode of Gerry Anderson's puppet series The Secret Service, he cancelled the show on the grounds that "people won't understand it".  The whole point  that they weren't meant to understand it being lost on him.

How did the term originate?

Maury Maverick, a Congressman from Texas, made up this word to mean "that terrible, involved, polysyllabic language those government people use down in Washington."

He used the word in the New York Times Magazine in 1944 while chairing the US Smaller War Plants Committee in Congress, as part of a complaint against the obscure language used by his colleagues.  He claimed that he was inspired by the turkey, "always gobbledy gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity."  Its survival demonstrates how clear a need the word met.

This was not the Maverick family's first impact on the dictionary.  Maury's grandfather, Samuel Maverick, a Texas rancher was the inspiration for the word used for an un-branded animal, since Sam Maverick didn't brand his own herds.  Later it came to be used for an unconventional person, and later still a politician who stands aside from the herd, refusing to conform to the party line.

Some examples of gobbledygook

Appropriately, for this season (this issue being due for publication at the end of December 2004) I shall start with a Unwinism.  Stanley Unwin's advice for those who have overeaten at Christmas was "If you've done an overstuffy in the tumloader, finisht the job with a ladleho of brandy butter, then pukeit all the way to the toileybox."

Stuart Chase quotes a statement from one of  Franklin Roosevelt's presidential speeches: "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished."  He suggested that standard bureaucratic prose would have substituted: "It is evident that a substantial number of persons within the Continental Boundaries of the United States have inadequate financial resources with which to purchase the products of agricultural communities and industrial establishments.  It would appear that for a considerable segment of the population, possible as much as 33.3333* of the total, there are inadequate housing facilities, and an equally significant proportion is deprived of the proper types of clothing and nutriment."

Stuart Chase, being American and working closely with the President, would naturally look to his words for illustration.  In Britain we had our own master of the language in the shape of Winston Churchill.  Readers might like to imagine what Chase's imaginary bureaucrat would have substituted for "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."

The British author, humorist and member of Parliament, A.P. Herbert actually performed such an exercise in respect of Nelson's famous phrase, "England expects every man to do his duty".  He substituted: "England anticipates that, as regards the current emergency, personnel will face up to the issues and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupational groups."

An office manager sent this memo to his boss: "Verbal contact with Mr Blank regarding the attached notification of promotion has elicited the attached representation intimating that he prefers to decline the assignment."  [In other words, Mr Blank didn't want the job.]

A doctor testified at a court trial that one of the parties was suffering from circumorbital haemotoma.  [Apparently he had a black eye.]

The Gobbledygook Generator is an amusing internet device for producing meaningless and empty phrases that could help you qualify for a position as a stereotypical consultant.  For a bit of fun go to and click on the button.

A diversion - The Gobbledygook of Hanoi Hoa Lo

An American citizen who was once fled Vietnam as a refugee, Linh Dui Vo has become a respected poet whose verse is included here (click on simply because of the clever use of the word "gobbledygook".  Its inclusion does not imply sympathy with or opposition to any political statements made therein.  And if that sounds like gobbledygook, let me say clearly that I neither agree nor disagree with him.  He prefaces the poem with the following words of President Reagan. 

"Today freedom-loving people . . . must say, 'I am a Jew in a world still threatened by anti-Semitism. I'm an Afghan, and I'm a prisoner of the gulag. I'm a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam. I'm a Laotian, a Cambodian, a Cuban, and a Miskito Indian in Nicaragua. I, too, am a . . . victim of totalitarianism.'"  --President Ronald Reagan, May 1985.

Avoidance of Gobbledygook

Henry Fowler in an early edition of his Usage wrote:

Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted to more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid.  this general principle may be translated into general rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:

                Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

                Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

                Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

                Prefer the short word to the long.

                Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

The Plain English Campaign, whose website features the Gobbledygook Generator linked above, added the following injunction which will serve us well as a closing phrase for this article:  Please write to inform rather than to impress.


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[2] The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1954.


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[1] Biographical data

Sep Meyer is a graduate of the London School of Economics and, since his retirement from a commercial life, has been devoting his time to a totally non-commercial activity, writing poetry, magazine articles, book reviews and drama.