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Why do people use bafflegab?
May 09, 2013


 Long-time reader, M, takes me to task regarding April 5’s Twisty Tongue. M wrote: “You let your readers down. You asked why politicians and others do everything possible to communicate unclearly and then you went on to discuss names for this kind of language. You never got around to answering your own question. I’m disappointed in you.”
M is absolutely right. I should have dealt with the reasons people use bafflegab — so far as we know those reasons, that is.
The Oxford Companion devotes considerable space to explaining why people speak pompously. One reason, Oxford suggests, is that those in public life want to sound profound.
According to Oxford, “It may sound more impressive to write that ‘The argillaceous character of the formation is very prominent in some localities, although it is usually subsidiary to the areniceous phase,’ rather than, ‘At some places the formation included considerable clay, but generally is made up of sand.’”
 D.W. Martin labels bafflegab, “The language of the powerful.” In his book, Office Speak, he calls such language “safe” and “vague.” He suggests that if no one understands your message, you are safe from embarrassing questions.
Scott Forbes, in a Free Press article on possible flooding, said of Steve Ashton, minister of infrastructure and emergency measures, “Ashton has transformed political evasion into high art.”
Forbes may be onto something, although Ashton’s speech can hardly be called pompous.
Rather, it’s empty and confused. Here’s his response to a question regarding the province’s preparedness for a flood: “(The province will) aim to minimize disruption in terms of daily life.” He added, “So when you’re looking at that, when you’re looking at, as I said, I’ve identified the thing that was not moved on or was the — an outlet on Lake St. Martin which was a bit of a restriction.”
Office Speak deals with empty phrases and words employed by politicians, executives, and bureaucrats — expressions like, “Frame the argument,” “Strategic decision,” “Pioneered,” “Spearheaded,” “Conceptualized,” “That’s on my radar screen,” “In terms of.”
There’s so much of this sort of language today that there’s actually a Doublespeak Dictionary. Compiled by William Lambdin, the dictionary presents “dangerous and deceiving doublespeak,” and says, “Words are the weapons used to trip our minds.”
Here are a few reasons for using doublespeak:
1. Vague language protects people from having to say what they mean.
2. People use involved but meaningless language to make themselves sound profound, so that they might impress their listeners.
3. Such language deflects suspicion, downplays facts, and directs attention away from difficult topics.
 4. Bafflegab conceals the fact that the speaker 
doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
And now for some examples from the Doublespeak Dictionary:
• Plenitude of ideational content — lots of ideas.
• Bibliophilistic pilferage — stealing library books.
• Double-digit inflation — government economists’ phrase to avoid exact percentages.
• Friendly casualties — soldiers killed by their own side or by allies.
• Personal preservation flotation device — a life jacket; life saver
• Strategic misrepresentation — lying.
• Technical correction — Wall Street’s term for a decline in the stock market.