Listen to the Wordsmiths: When words are hogwash

“’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.”
That was Lewis Carroll writing in the 19th Century when words meant something. Now words mean less rather than more, especially when spoken by politicians. It is a major theme of a book written by a wordsmith, Don Watson (photo above), award-winning author and former speechwriter to Prime Minister Paul Keating. In his introduction to Worst Words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon (Random House, 439 pages), Watson chronicles how one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, Graham Greene, liked Fidel Castro, even his four-hour orations. Greene wrote that Castro’s speeches were “not made up of evasions and oratorical tricks and big abstract words … they are full of information, down to earth, filled with details … he is the revolutionary brain in action …”
Watson uses a random sample of managerial language as an example of words that mean nothing: “In particular, the degree of formality evidenced across universities, regarding the documentation of risk strategy and risk appetite, processes to identify and manage risk, and reporting on new and emerging risks suggests that rigour in risk management is a key enabler in improving organisational performance.” Whew!
That prompts Watson to sum up what’s wrong with public language in this succinct paragraph, ending with one of my favourite words: “All public language inclines to pomposity and deceit, but modern public language inclines these ways acutely and nails it to the inclination. Unlike Greene’s Castro, it is also evasive and dishonest in its essence; abstract, devoid of useful information and concrete example, remote from human reality, filled not with detail but with hogwash.” If I were in the audience listening to Don Watson recite that passage, I would give him a standing ovation.
Recently, I gave a small speech to a public meeting at a local golf club on a proposed merger of two councils in North Sydney: Ku-ring-gai (where I live), and Hornsby. I’ve written a post about the meeting, but I had to read the proposal put forward by the NSW Local Government Minister to see why he backed the amalgamation of two councils that were quite capable of standing alone. It was written in managerial language that meant nothing. Here is an example: “The government detailed the benefits of the merger in the proposal, including ‘improved strategic planning and economic development to better respond to the changing community’.” I added this: “That line could have come directly from the ABC TV (satirical) series, Utopia. What does it mean? Absolutely nothing.” The audience laughed as did Garry West, the delegate of the Office of Local Government CEO, who will consider the submissions and pass on his assessment. It made my day.
Don Watson explains in the introduction what’s harmful about the language of management: “. . . as far as I know, no one has studied the effects on human beings of long-term daily exposure to jargon and clichés: but we may assume that a world whose language defies visualisation, and is stripped of all lyric, comic and descriptive possibility, is far from and ideal human environment and some kind of trauma may result.”
Once you’ve read his excellent introduction, you can look up all the jargons and clichés and words that you hate quite easily, as the book is alphabetical, from Tony Abbott’s “absolute crap” to the Australasian Bottled Water Institute’s “zero kilojoule hydration option.” The former was Abbott’s assessment of climate change; the latter is more commonly known as water. Watson gives examples: “The argument (for climate change) is absolute crap.” And “People willing to pay for the convenience of a zero-kilojoule hydration option when they’re out and about.”
For my favourite “worst” phrase, “going forward(s),” Watson gives five references, as in “Excuse me, can you tell me the time going forwards?” Politicians are the worst offenders. Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister for Immigration, who is also a co-host for a Sky News current affairs show on Saturday morning with Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, has four mentions in this category: two for the Julia Gillard ALP campaign slogan in the 2010 election. Here’s one Marlesism from the ABC: “What is very clear in terms of the best interests of the Labor Party now, what is very clear going forward is that everybody unites behind Julia Gillard.” And another one from the Sydney Morning Herald: “In terms of going forward we are utterly committed to the fact that we need to make sure.”
Watson also inserts some of his worst words to famous speeches to show how ridiculous they sound. For example, “access,” which has become a buzzword, as in Access Economics, and shows up in this Human Rights Commission report: “Language is a key issue of access for people from any non-English-speaking culture …” And from the sublime speech to the ridiculous word, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with a not-so-accessible ending: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal (and should have equal access).” Poor Abe is probably spinning in his grave over that one.
I could go on, but I suggest you pick up a copy of Worst Words, and see if some of your most hated phrases have also earned a guernsey on Watson’s website: where you can send your examples of atrocious words. It all started with his 2004 book, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language and continued in 2005 with Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words. And I almost forgot. Yes, Malcolm Turnbull does get a mention or two. Remember one of his first speeches as Prime Minister in September 2015? If so, you must be agile and innovative: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”
If you like Worst Words, you’ll also enjoy a more formal book about language: Modern Australian Usage: A Practical Guide for Writers & Editors, 3rd Edition (Allen & Unwin, also 439 pages!). The author is another wordsmith, Nicholas Hudson, a long-time editor and publisher working with Australian writing and writers. In his preface, he describes what the guide is all about: “The issues it discusses are not invented: they are the issues which most often arise. The questions are the questions most asked. The mistakes are the mistakes most often made.”
It’s a well-written, readable book, and Hudson says its major inspiration was Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “as will be obvious (but I hope not objectionably so) to lovers of Fowler.” I can’t say I’m in love with H.W. Fowler, but I have a 1984 edition of the book in its original form which he began planning with his brother Francis in 1911 that I have consulted on quite a few occasions in the past three decades. It’s a classic and every library should have a copy. Fowler was a scholar, but he wasn’t dry or pedantic, as you can tell by his lovely dedication of the book to his brother, who died before it was published. Francis George Fowler died in 1918, at the age of 47, of tuberculosis contracted during his service with the British Expeditionary Force in 1915-16. H.W. Fowler writes: “To the memory of my brother … who shared with me the planning of this book, but did not live to share the writing. I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullness enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner.” Hudson writes like that, too as he profiles himself in the preface: “ … it is a book written by an amateur, in both senses of that abused word. Firstly, it is by an unashamed lover of words in general, and of the Australian idiom in particular. Secondly, it is by one who is not a professional scholar.” Honest and humble, Hudson may not be a professional scholar, but he’s a professional writer.
He also writes about grammar, five succinct pages which tell you everything you needed to know about grammar but were afraid to ask: “If people say that they know no grammar, they are talking rubbish. If they knew no grammar, they would not be able to understand us and would not be able to construct sentences which we could understand. What they generally mean is that they do not know the jargon of grammar, so they cannot describe the rules. In this respect, grammar is like sex. Most people can do it, but if they want to discuss it they had better learn the names of the parts.” Sex: What a wonderful way to introduce grammar!
Hudson has an entry on weasel words, where he praises Don Watson’s “monumental book” for “creating a list which has been added to every day since (2004).” He says Watson’s examples “are so good that I need quote only one: John Kerry, America’s ever-more-pontifical secretary of state, recently began an answer about Middle East peace negotiations by declaring, as he often does: ‘I want to make this crystal clear.’ He then went on: ‘The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate’.”
Nicholas Hudson’s comment on Kerry’s declaration is so good, he deserves the last word:
“I fear that some Australian politicians have used even more words to say even less.”

2 thoughts on “Listen to the Wordsmiths: When words are hogwash

  1. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda, Mr. Watson may have come to God in his later years but he and his ilk have for decades been the masters of obfuscation, hands firmly up shirt, of our political masters. Add the legitimate beef of interpreting management speak and it makes a man want to learn Klingon.

    Annoying quirks that routinely emerge in the structure of, include my favorite, the use of the word “so” before one responds to a question.

    Mr. Watson however is to be commended for his work. Alas, I fear it will be passed over by so-called communications companies who revel in the obfuscate structure of language.

    Hirsute days behind me, when I wish to rend and rant I fall into rocker, whiskey in one hand,The Devil’s Dictionary in t’other. Ambrose Bierce knew and loved language. His closing stanzas in definition of an editor are evocative and do not reflect the passage of time. They ring true still.

    “Master of mystery and lord of law, high pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the the dim splendors of the transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit. And at intervals from behind the veil of the temple is heard the voice of the foreman demanding three inches of wit and six lines of religious meditation or bidding him to turn off the wisdom and whack up some pathos.”

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