Friday, August 24, 2012

Political rhetoric: double-talk, gobbledygook, gibberish and jabberwocky?

I'm gobsmacked and flabbergasted at Mitt Romney's incessant gibberish – is this political rhetoric or jabberwocky? While the following promises not to decipher Romney's or his advisors’ double-talk, it does uncover the origins of all of this gobbledygook.

Being a Canadian who doesn’t understand fully the American political system, I don’t usually follow the goings on or the shenanigans of American politicians all that closely. The Anthony Weiner sexting scandal afforded several laughs, true – in part because of the former congressman’s lack of judgment, but also because of his [unfortunate] surname. What’s more, I join a multitude of others who believe Sarah Palin’s book belongs in the fiction section – assuming my local library or bookseller has the temerity to carry it at all.

As we near the 2012 United States presidential election, I’ve been watching the candidates a little more closely. Certainly Mitt Romney’s – do I dare call it rhetoric? – has provided plenty of fodder for political satirists, and I’ve found myself laughing out loud not only at Romney’s nonsense, but also at the jabs – justified, in my opinion – both Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have taken at him and his entourage.

Consider the quote by Ed Gillespie, one of Romney’s top advisors, trying to explain the reason Romney left Bain Capital in 1999. Gillespie noted that the Republican candidate had “retired retroactively.”

I’m not here to discuss whether “retroactive” is the correct way to characterize the former governor’s departure from Bain to work at the Salt Lake City Olympics. After all, Romney’s retirement from Bain was the result of a 2002 severance agreement that declared 1999 to be the date of his departure.

Perhaps critics and satirists are confusing “retroactive” retirement with “retrofitted” retirement, something Weiner is currently considering.

Other people have retroactively retired. Look at Ben Affleck’s retirement from the cast of Gigli. Or even Michael Jordan’s leaving the Washington Wizards after two seasons. Why pick on Romney? He “retroactively retired” from other positions besides the one he held at Bain. Governor of Massachusetts, for instance.

There’s Garbo’s “I want to be left alone” introspective retirement. There’s the hypoactive – aptly named, given that most feel there’s no brain activity whatsoever inside Dubya’s head – retirement of former president George W. Bush. And there’s the hyperactive retirement of the former president Bill Clinton – the hyperactive referring not to Clinton’s supposed libidinousness per se but to the media firestorm it unleashed. (I say supposed because, as we all know, he did not have sexual relations with … uh … that woman.)

But I digress…

I still struggle with some analysts’ and journalists’ explanations of Romney’s business career. Being Canadian, I’m ignorant of the intricacies of the American political system, yet I doubt there is much separating me from casual [American] voters. Like me, those with little knowledge of the Bain story may think Romney is trying to hide something embarrassing or incriminating while, at the same time, drawing attention to a nebulous area he is pretending doesn’t exist: that between February 1999 and the date of his 2002 severance agreement, he still had some involvement in Bain’s activities.

So, is Gillespie’s sound bite an example of double-talk?

Double-speak and double-talk

Given the confusing times in which we live, it’s little wonder that I think of George Orwell’s 1946 “Politics and the English language”, which illustrates the mental vices from which many suffer. Three years later, Orwell, in his Nineteen Eighty-four, coined the terms newspeak and oldspeak. The former refers to the deliberately impoverished language, characterized by greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar, promoted by the state. The latter denotes the English language, which the Party hopes to replace.

Double-speak, derived from newspeak and oldspeak, denotes a particular variety of language or characteristic mode of speaking. By extension, double-talk refers to verbal expression intended to be, or which may be, construed in more than one sense. It is deliberately ambiguous or imprecise language and is used especially when referring to political language subject to arbitrary national or party interpretation.

Perhaps this explanation sounds like gobbledygook, double-speak meant to overwhelm the audience with technical jargon and unfamiliar words.


Gobbledygook is Texas lawyer Maury Maverick’s name for the long, high-sounding words of Washington’s red-tape language. In 1944, the plainspoken Maverick, expressing disdain for his colleagues’ propensity for stuffy, obfuscatory, bureaucratic language and jargon, wrote an official memo to his colleagues and subordinates, urging them to speak and write in plain English. It read, in part
Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about… Anyone using the words ‘activation’ and ‘implementation’ will be shot!
Asked later why he chose the word gobbledygook, Maverick replied
Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobblin’ and struttin’ with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of … ‘gook.’
Synonymous with gobbledygook is bafflegab.


Official or professional jargon that confuses more than it clarifies, bafflegab first appeared in the January 23, 1952, edition of London's The Daily Telegraph.
A new word for lovers of officialese is bafflegab, invented by Mr. Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce. He has won a prize for the word — and its definition: ‘Multiloquence characterised by a consummate interfusion of circumlocution ... and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilised for promulgations implementing procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.’
Is it just me, or does Smith’s definition read like jabberwocky?


Jabberwocky is the title of a nonsense verse poem in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 classic of children’s literature Through the Looking-glass. The book’s protagonist, Alice, in conversation with the chess pieces White King and White Queen, finds a book written in a seemingly unintelligible language. Aware that she is travelling through an inverted world and realizing that the verses on the pages are written in reverse, Alice holds a mirror to one of the poems and reads the reflected “Jabberwocky”.

Derived from the name of Carroll’s fabulous titular monster and first cited in the April 10, 1908, issue of The Daily Chronicle, jabberwocky denotes invented or meaningless language or nonsensical behaviour. “To jabberwocky” means to write or speak in jabberwocky style – something I sincerely hope I haven’t done here.

I’m sending a KISS to all those who follow my blog: remember, keep it simple and succinct.


  1. Nicely done! Basically I think the secret to understanding the Romney campaign is what they're NOT saying, that which is unspoken, which is "Vote for the guy who looks like a REAL American, i.e. not the black guy with the funny name. OK, I have a funny name too, but at least I'm white." Of course in this 'enlightened' age you can't actually say that, which is why you have to disguise it in bafflegab, gobbledygook, jabberwocky and double-talk and hope those sympathetic to your unspoken message get the meaning.