To communicate has been in English since 1506, and means, “ to impart information; to inform.” The word communicate comes from the Latin communicat/communicare (to make common; to make known). It entered Middle English from the French communis.
The meaning hasn’t changed over the years. Definitions in both Latin and English are very clear — if you are communicating, you’re sharing information so it may be known.
Why then do government and business representatives do everything possible to communicate via unclear language? As I write, we’re still unsure about a leak at the Suncor oil sands site in Fort McMurray, first noticed on Monday, March 24. Suncor’s message of reassurance tells us nothing: “Tests confirm the process affected water was a combination of water with suspended solids and inorganic and organic compounds.” As useless as that information is, it says more than the Alberta government’s news release regarding a previous Suncor spill in 2011. Alberta conceded the spill surpassed allowable amounts of “acute lethality toxicity.”
I have been writing Twisty Tongue for 15 years. During that time, I’ve done five columns on deliberate non-communication. Entire books have been written on this subject, and many a new term has been invented to describe this kind of perverted language — bureaucratese, officespeak, newspeak, doublespeak, gobbledegook and bafflegab, to name a few.
Most of these terms are not very old as language is reckoned. In fact, the oldest word we have for empty talk is, to jabber, which dates back to 1499. Then comes jargon (nonsensical, incoherent, meaningless talk) from 1570. Centuries younger is double Dutch which originated in 1864. Double Dutch is defined as, “language that cannot be understood.” Nevertheless, it must be noted that as early as 1601, Middle English used the noun double-tongue to indicate duplicity in speech — that is, to say one thing and mean another. Double-tongue does not quite qualify as the bafflegab we are discussing, but certainly it is an ancestor. We probably got double talk from double-tongue. Double talk is “meaningless and evasive speech.”
Bafflegab originated in the U.S. in the 1950s. Coined by Milton Smith of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it means, “deliberately unintelligible jargon.” Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang points out that bafflegab is especially used by politicians, civil servants, bureaucrats, and businessmen. Bafflegab is a simple melding of gab (idle chatter) and baffle (to bewilder).
Jabberwocky originated in 1872, when Lewis Carroll used it in Through the Looking-Glass. It comes from to jabber (to speak volubly with little sense — 1499). Gobbledegook had its beginning in 1944 in the U.S., when used by Maury Maverick, chair of a congressional committee seeking to institute smaller war plants. Maverick suggested that political language resembles the gobbling of turkeys. Gobbledegook began as slang but is now considered standard English.
George Orwell dreamed up newspeak for his novel, 1984. In that book, Orwell foresaw a nightmarish future where language is all but destroyed via shrinkage of vocabulary, loss of nuance, and inability to properly express thought. Sort of like today’s texting language. Was Orwell on to something. Are we there yet?