Jargonbuster: Gobbledygook for the discombobulated

The World Today Published 1 August 2014 Updated 7 December 2018 1 minute READ

The word gobbledygook was invented in 1944 by Maury Maverick – now, there is a name: you don’t get many people called Maury these days, even in America, and maverick is what you call an MP who has never been promoted, not a surname.

Maverick was a Democratic congressman from Texas who wrote to his staff: ‘Anyone using the words activation or implementation will be shot.’

Like many Texans, he regarded latinate abstract nouns as un-American devices to fool the good, earthy people of his state. The reason his word became so widely used throughout the English-speaking world, though, was that it contained a universal truth. There is probably a word for gobbledygook in Mandarin and Russian too. It is a sturdy weapon against obfuscation, abstraction and the use of sonorous phrases because they sound good and you have heard someone else using them even if you are not quite sure what they mean.

Many such phrases have cropped up in public life recently. The Prime Minister has promised to leave ‘no stone unturned’, which has been gobbledygook for thoroughness since before Maverick’s time. Indeed the cliché was mocked in the hippie era as ‘No left turn unstoned.’ David Cameron may even have promised to ‘focus relentlessly’, another gobbledygook phrase because it doesn’t take much effort to focus, that being what eyes do naturally, because otherwise there is little point in having them. Cameron was talking about what the press often refers to as ‘historic abuse cases’, although they mean ‘historical’ ones: they happened a while ago, in history, rather than being world-changing, and thus making history. That, though, is not proper gobbledygook, it is just a confusion rather than an attempt to confuse.

Proper bamboozlement is using a phrase such as ‘the gold standard’ when referring to qualifications, for example. In this country it usually means A levels, or a qualification that is not as highly regarded as an A level but someone thinks ought to be. This is a curious analogy, because the actual Gold Standard was a straitjacket that prevented politicians doing anything to ameliorate the Depression. Is that what they want?

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