Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Gobbledegook Is Alive and Well

One man's gobbledegook is another's plain speaking.

At the top of this blog I placed the quote - "Many wise words are spoken in jest, but they don't compare with the number of stupid words spoken in earnest."

Consider the following...

The Plain English Campaign is a British pressure group that lobbies for public information to be presented in clear, straightforward language. It has a website that I stumbled across the other day.

Plain English Campaign

The home page states - "Since 1979, we have been campaigning against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. We have helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications. We believe that everyone should have access to clear and concise information. We have over 12,000 members in 80 countries and our Crystal Mark is now firmly established as a guarantee that a document is written in plain English. It appears on more than 18,300 documents."

But they also give annual awards. These include The Golden Bull Award and The Foot In Mouth Award. Here is a sampling of some of the "winners"from 2008.

The Golden Bull -

* HM Revenue and Customs for a letter to a customer

‘Thank you for your Tax Returns ended 5th April 2006 & 2007 which we received on 20th December. I will treat your Tax Return for all purposes as though you sent it in response to a notice from us which required you to deliver it to us by the day we received it.’

* VCA Midlands Centre for a letter

‘The requirement on each member State under Article 2 of the Directive to minimise the disposal of WEEE as unsorted municipal waste and to achieve a high level of collection of WEEE for treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal.’

The Foot In Mouth Award -

Bush leaves White House with Lifetime Achievement Award from Plain English Campaign

This award, which we first gave in 1993, is for a baffling comment by a public figure. Departing US President George W Bush does not leave the White House empty handed. We have awarded him a Foot in Mouth Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to gobbledygook.

“I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right.” (Rome, July 22, 2001)

The above has a similar ring to one of the previous Foot in Mouth winners, a fellow Statesman, Donald Rumsfeld, with his ‘known knowns’. But it could be said that President Bush made Foot in Mouth his very own, covering a wide range of subjects including clear communications.

“I hope you leave here and walk out and say, ‘what did he say?’” (Beaverton, Oregon August 13 2004)

Plain English Campaign believes that President Bush captures the spirit of every true gobbledygooker when he says, surprisingly plainly,

“Let me put it to you bluntly. In a changing world, we want more people to have control over your own life” (Annandale, Va August 9 2004)

But perhaps the classic example of goobledegook comes from -

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for this back in 2003: “Reports that say something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. John Lister, the spokesman for the campaign, said: “We think we know what he means. But we don’t know if we really know”.

In the days since, journalists and academics have queued up to assert that Donald Rumsfeld was talking sense, moreover sense expressed in the simplest and plainest words available, ones that the Plain English Campaign should be applauding, not criticising. The trouble is, Mr Rumsfeld’s statement needs work to appreciate, because he’s talking philosophy. (You might argue that he left out one category, that of unknown knowns — things we know, but we don’t know that we know — but that’s perhaps a comment better reserved for a seminar on metacognition.)

It would seem that the PEC has put its own foot in its own mouth...

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