“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”—George Bernard Shaw, (1856 –1950) Irish playwright, critic, polemicist, and political activist.
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Writers love finding new words. Even rediscovering forgotten words can be fun. My personal delight is checking the dictionary to ensure that a word I haven’t used in a while still means what it once did, and finding the definition tagged as “archaic.” Archaic wordsmiths love old words.
Last week, reading Mattie Dellinger’s column reminded me of the beauty and power in simple words. The long-time Center, Texas columnist and historian wrote, “In all my half a century of writing for newspapers, I’ve never used a word which would send the reader to the dictionary to see what I meant. The fact is I couldn’t spell it anyway. Maybe you notice that I use nickel words instead of four-bits words in my weekly writing.”
Mattie covered news stories and wrote columns for the local newspapers for decades before she passed away in 2013 at the age of 101. Her timeless columns are reprinted in the Light and Champion every week.
Working with Mattie for many years and calling her my friend was a privilege. I remember her often saying in our weekly editorial meetings. “Never use four-bit words when nickel words will do.”
At that time, we used to call those collections of four-bit words “gobbledygook.” That’s the fun word I remembered last week, and a word that my mother often used. It’s even fun to say. The dictionary defines gobbledygook as, “Unclear, wordy jargon.” Unclear messages to the point of absurdity have been compounded in many ways since I first heard the word.
Some blame it on attorneys and the courts. Some blame it on the government. Some even blame the media. But, regardless of who takes the rap, attempted oversimplification of communication has reached the point of gobbledygook.
Everything we read today: handbooks, procedures, directives, even washroom instructions are too often worded so “simply” that even a Harvard graduate has no idea what the Sam Hill some things are supposed to mean. I’m betting even Sam himself doesn’t know.
For example, “Effectively communicate to personnel the required procedural data to enable effective implementation for the methodologies delineated.” Today, a more easily understood version might be, “Shout it a little louder or post it next to the coffee pot in the break room.”
Try this one, “Make an attempt to perceive expectations concerning the applicability of these programs to the functions and capacities of their intended utilization.” See how much easier it gets once we understand? This one surely means, “Figure out what the customer wants.”
I read one a while back that stated, “Integrated logistical programming capability for incremental transitional time-phase projections.” I think you or I would have just said, “One thing at a time.”
These and similar gems were found in an old clipping that someone, perhaps Mattie, found during those years we worked together. That faded copy of “The Editorial Eye,” which included no individual attribution to offer, also proclaimed to “Effectively terminate all processes for project development.” It was determined by someone smarter than me that it means, “Stop working on this and find a new job.”
We no doubt figured out at one of our meetings with Mattie that, “Our preliminary projections of capitalization benefits have essentially proven to be severely underrated.” That one is easy. “Hello … we tried to tell you we needed more money.”
The classic use of two-bit words may have been, “A substantial increase in expenditures for fiscal resources to implement the optimum enhancement of conference room facilities.” Yep, just say, “The new executive washroom is going to cost more than we thought.”
Gobbledygook need not be limited to business communication, insurance policies, or legal language. It can easily be adapted to everyday or casual conversation with very little imagination. For example, when your wife says, “He metamorphosed into a laid-back mode with potential for a deeper transitional state,” all she is really trying to say is, “Don’t disturb the baby, he’s almost asleep.”
And the next time someone at a neighborhood party shouts, “Let’s have a little better integration of our individual efforts in our harmonious group interactions,”… don’t stress over it. Just sing on key.
After many years of writing, my money is still on Mattie’s advice.
So, do you know what it means to be categorized as a “polemicist” as was George Bernard Shaw in the above introduction? If you didn’t, I didn’t either, So I looked it up. “A person who engages in controversial debate.”
Now we both have a new word to use.
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