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Communicating to be misunderstood
Mar 09, 2012


Did God and Moses have a bureaucrat handy when the Ten Commandments were carved in stone?
Of course, they didn’t. And we should give thanks for that. Imagine anyone in Ottawa, London or Washington saying so much in a mere 75 words?
If the “communicators” in the prime minister’s office had helped Moses, thou shalt not kill would likely have ended up sounding something like this: “In compliance with God’s edict, it has been deemed of prime importance that Canadians in all walks of life — from sea, to sea, to sea — will henceforth refrain and desist from taking the life of any entity considered human.”
How would Ottawa rewrite other famous quotations?
Julius Caesar wrote, “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Those six words are even fewer in Caesar’s language, Latin — Veni, vidi, vici.
Today, the Department of Defense might have some general say: “I arrived at the proposed combat site, and after careful analysis and investigation, I instituted the aggressive action required in order to subdue inhabitants and suppress insurgents.”
In 1941, in a radio speech, Winston Churchill famously said, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.”
Like Caesar, Churchill didn’t depend on a pompous speech-writer to muddy his message. If he’d had such a “helper,” he might have said: “In terms of expediting the finality of the misfortune which besets our nation at this point in time, the operative statement is that given the necessary equipment and resources and related human-power, this country will encounter no obstacle or difficulty in finalizing the task at hand.”
The late Sydney Harris, the British-born American journalist who served on the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, once suggested Attila the Hun might have excused his behaviour this way: “Perhaps it was excessive zeal, but I sincerely felt that the welfare of Western barbarism made it imperative to halt the spread of civilization by any means in my power.”
It’s hard to beat Donna Woolfolk Cross’s rewording of a familiar old saying. “One of the remarkable and characteristic properties currently under intensive laboratory study is that when a metallic receptacle is subjected to a careful and continuous scrutiny of a deliberate nature, the mixture which it is the nature and purpose of the said receptacle to contain will not, in point of fact, undergo a phase change and permit entry into a gaseous form at any point in time within the duration of the aforementioned scrutiny” (Word Abuse).
Have you identified the saying? Probably not. But the above gobbledygook is a bureaucratic/scientific way of saying, “A watched pot never boils.”
Why do people, especially politicians and bureaucrats, speak this way?
In 2004, John Lorinc wrote, “Quirky, opaque phraseology has piled up, and now functions like a linguistic Berlin Wall separating those in the know from those who aren’t supposed to know” (Report on Business).
That says it all. Those who habitually use “doublespeak,” “jargon,” “gobbledygook,” “bureaucratese,” or whatever other label you choose, don’t want to be understood.