Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • My birthday word is "gobbledygook," the perfect gift for a writer

    The Oxford English Dictionary has an app that lets you find your birthday word: a word that entered English the month and year you were born. My birthday word is gobbledygook. The perfect gift for any writer.

    Gobbledygook, coined by Maury Maverick in the early 1940s, means, in his words, “talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague, involved, usually with Latinized words.” It can also refer to any long discourse, even one with simple words, if those words are repeated repeatedly, over and over again, numbingly, anaesthetically, soporifically. Maverick made up gobbledygook to describe the fog of words he encountered working for federal agencies in Washington during World War II.

    Maverick's grandfather, Sam, had a brush with word-coining as well. Samuel Maverick was a cattle rancher who signed the Texas declaration of independence (the one about independence from Mexico, not the later Rick Perry declaration of independence from the United States). Maverick's last name came to signify an unbranded calf. It was later extended to mean an unorthodox, independent thinker.

    Grandson Fontaine Maury Maverick—Maury often ditched his real first name because it was too long and Latinized—was a maverick himself, a progressive Texas Democrat, not a common sight in the 1930s, who lost his congressional seat in the ’38 primary after his opponent branded him a communist. Maverick then held various posts in the Roosevelt administration, where he came face to face with the deceptive, coma-inducing Washington verbiage that drove him to neologism.

    As the self-described “head of Latin phrases and big words” for the War Production Board, followed by a stint at the Smaller War Plants Corporation, Maverick encountered so much jargon that he sent a memo to his staff denouncing “gobbledygook.” Administrative culture being what it is, the new word didn’t have much impact on bureaucratese, but gobbledygook itself got enough play to merit an entry in the OED, as did bureaucratese, another byproduct of the war effort first used in the Washington Post in 1942.

    A couple of years after he coined it, Maverick speculated about how the word came to him:

    Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook.

    “The Case Against ‘Gobbledybook.’” New York Times
    May 21, 1944, pp. 11; 35-36.

    Gobbledygook is the sound of a self-important turkey

    Maverick advised a simple solution for gobbledygook: “Make the point and the conclusion in the first paragraph.” Not many writers listened.

    Gobbledygook was in the air in the 1940s, when I was born. In 1946, George Orwell wrote the widely-acclaimed “Politics and the English Language,” blaming politicians for using long, foreign-sounding words to hide the truth. Politicians surely obfuscate: Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown knowns” is only one of many possible examples. But writers do so as well: for one thing, George Orwell was actually the alias of Eric Blair.

    In any case, politicians aren’t Maverick’s target, civil servants are. Civil servants don’t have the same motivation to lie as politicians, and hiding the truth usually takes more effort than the typical bureaucrat is willing to expend. And so Maverick sees, not lying, but fear of failure, as the leading cause of gobbledygook:

    I have a hunch that a writer, feeling defeat in advance, gets lengthy and vague in self-defense. If defeat comes, he can hide behind the big words and ascribe it to the ignorance of the people addressed.

    Fear of failure, not lying, is the leading cause of gobbledygook

    Orwell was right that lying is an important aspect of language use. People lie under oath, though they’re not supposed to, and I’m sure even the most truth-telling among us would respond to a question like “Does this make me look fat?” with an answer that saves face all around. In many cases, lying is protected by the First Amendment. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Alvarez that there is a constitutional right to lie about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, and later this term the Court will rule on whether politicians may lie during a campaign (Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus).

    But Maverick is also right that most writers feel defeat in advance, every day. With every blank sheet of paper, and now with every blank screen, we fear deep down that no one really cares what we have to say. It's worse than the fear of aging which, after enough years, comes with every birthday.

    It's not just fear that drives gobbledygook. Writers may be unsure of their facts, or uncomfortable making an argument. They may have learned the hard way that whatever they say will be corrected, which can be worse than being ignored. Or they may actually think that using big words and elaborate explanations will make it seem like they know what they’re talking about (mansplaining isn’t in the dictionary yet, but it’s probably time to add it to the list of gobbledygook synonyms).

    Mansplaining isn't in the dictionary, yet

    Gobbledygook is only one of many birthday words I got this year. Thirty-four words have their earliest OED citation in the month and year I was born, including glitterwax, a great-sounding word for a kind of children’s modeling clay that's long-since been replaced by Play-Doh; infiltrator, referring to an enemy soldier sneaking behind allied lines; and angst, in a cite showing that the word that means so much more than 'anxiety' is no longer marked as “borrowed from the German” but is now nativized into English. I just like gobbledygook best. It’s a long, contrived word that makes fun of long, contrived words. Like sesquipedalian, a foot-and-a-half-long word that means ‘a foot-and-a-half-long word,' gobbledygook is an ironic word that means exactly what it says.

    So thank you, OED. This is the best birthday word ever.

    Note: There are actually 262 words whose earliest citation in the OED is in my birth year, though all of them appear in my birth month. Besides those I’ve already mentioned, the most pertinent for me are,

    ball-busting, bear-hug (v.), big-assed, breasty, carpet-bomb, clobber, corticosteroid, data processing, denazify, deviance, dog shit, fatso, freeze-drying, genocide, globalist, he-said-she-said, hubba-hubba, imagineer (v. ‘to imagine, speculate’), live-in, Madison Avenue (n., for ‘the advertising biz’), multidisciplinary, multinationalism, namaste (a greeting that reflects my Indian roots), numero uno, on-camera, pain au chocolat, permanent press, personhood, plastic bomb, portal, role model, schmendrik (from the Yiddish, ‘a fool or jerk,’ reflecting my Jewish roots), security blanket, streptomycin, swipeable, vegan, wolf-whistle, and zillion (‘a large number’; because of inflation, we now say gazillion [OED, 1978], though bazillion [1939] is a word that came out of the Depression).


additional blog information