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GovSpeak: Gobbled Up in Gobbledygook

The Declaration of Independence was very clear about what it meant. Since then, it's been pretty much downhill for government prose. Who could forget "revenue enhancement" as a synonym for "tax"?

Modern business-speak is just as bad. We talk of a product's "functionality," rather than just explain what it does. We "facilitate" things, rather than simply do them. We use "dialogue" as a verb.

Why is that some people feel compelled to use three words when one will do or choose words and phrases designed to sound intelligent but which in truth obscure and confuse?

Possibly because they invented it, the English seem especially adept at mangling the English language, especially in the public sector: the people who run cities, boroughs and counties. Now the U.K.'s Local Government Association has released a list of 200 words it thinks should be stricken from the briefs, reports and speeches of its members.

“The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases," said Margaret Eaton, chairman of the Local Government Association. "Why do we have to have ‘coterminous, stakeholder engagement’ when we could just ‘talk to people’ instead?"

Why indeed. Here are a few phrases from the banned list, along with suggested replacements:

Actioned -- do
Benchmarking -- measuring
Funding Streams -- money
Interface -- talking to each other
Transactional -- Why use at all?

I think my favorite example of government gobbledygook run amok is "predictors of beaconicity."

Richard Stokoe, who compiled the list for the LGA, told the Daily Mail: "I have no idea what 'predictors of beaconicity' means, even though it was the title of a 20-page report."

Have you come across ridiculous jargon in your job? Have you even created some yourself? Share the most egregious examples you've seen in our "Commons" comments section -- or, as I suppose I should say it: Please synergize your potentiality by dialoguing coterminously in our feedback output sector.

Going forward, of course.

By John Kelly  |  March 18, 2009; 9:40 AM ET
 
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Comments

use to work at a place that handled EDI data. sometimes the numbers didn't add up right so when there was an error i was told to 'render' the data correctly. took me a minute to realize that what was meant was 'make sure that 1+1+1=3'. to this day i can't figure out how the word render related to math

Posted by: nall92 | March 18, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

A minivan commercial from a few years ago extolled the vehicle's "garageability." I don't believe that word will survive SpellCheck.

Posted by: f-street | March 18, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

My pet peeve: when marketing types convert verbs into nouns, like "ask" for "request" and "spend" for "expense" or "expenditure." How much more effort does it take to say one extra syllable?

Posted by: tmmm | March 18, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

My peeve is when people say "let" a contract in lieu of "award" a contract.

Posted by: justhere | March 18, 2009 11:14 AM | Report abuse

This mangling of the language comes from people who seem to believe that they must use complex words to be impressive. In other words, they have to show others that they are smart, but in the process they actually confuse their audience, or worse yet, turn them off.

Some of my pet peeve word uses:

"Disconnect" as a noun rather than a verb: whenever I hear this it makes me want to disconnect the speaker from his/her teeth.

"Impact" as a verb rather than a noun: Yes, this usage has become commonplace -- but whatever was wrong with using "affect" in similar constructions? Did "affect" do something worthy of banishment from the cool kids' table?

Same with "pushback:" Someone trying to be too cute by half when they could just say "resistance" or "opposition." Simplify it and move on.

And "takeaway" as a sad effort to summarize the description of a lesson or something important to remember. Try again.

Finally, "game-changer." Absolutely useless as an adjective. Use some other syllables to describe how the landscape has shifted, and stop trying to breathe life into this stillborn phrase.

My least favorite terminology is the phrase "at the end of the day" as a construction to summarize something. Every time I hear someone utter this phrase, I'm tempted to say, "Really? At the end of the day, it's night and I go home."

Posted by: jcbcmb68 | March 18, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I have asked Mr. Kelly and many other journalists, without ever receiving a response, when "went missing" became acceptable usage. Instead of "John Smith has been missing since...", everyone now says, "John Smith went missing on...". It is not proper English, and sounds foolish.

Posted by: Slinger61 | March 18, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Leveraging resources
Out of pocket
Off-line

I happen to like "pushback" and "disconnect"... but that's just me.

I've never understood the phrase "to let a contract". Is it when the contract is awarded (in which case I completely agree with Justhere) or is it when the RFP goes "on the street" (another jargon-y phrase)?

Posted by: LoveDC2 | March 18, 2009 12:13 PM | Report abuse

My colleagues and myself* have been tasked with brainstorming solutions to incentivize our team members to utilize--

I'm sorry, I can't even bear to finish that.

[*One of my biggest pet peeves -- using the reflexive form as a subject because people think it sounds sophisticated.]

Posted by: Janine1 | March 18, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

I am with Janine1 on the "myself" usage; it seems ironic to me that using the wrong form (i.e., the speaker demonstrating how unsophisticated his or her grasp of English grammar really is) has become a way for some people to try and make themselves appear sophisticated.

(Hence why I don't use it. Making oneself sound highfalutin makes any incidental errors more obvious.)

Speak plain English! You will be more easily understood! If your idea is stupid, using big words to describe it will not actually make it less so!

Posted by: forget@menot.com | March 18, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

I confess to using "repurpose", but only in a "deliverable" for OMB - they love that stuff.

Otherwise, I think I've said "Task is not a verb!" often enough that it will be carved on my tombstone.

Posted by: EinDC | March 18, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

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