Officialdom, Law & Gobbledegook

A recent judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the offence of defamation has justifiably attracted much comment for its magniloquent style.

Interestingly The New York Times had carried an article on May 21, 1944 called The Case Against GobbledegookThe author Maury Maverick protested “vague, pompous, repetitious English and the two gun bandits who use it.” What provoked Maury was the the language of officialdom and was mild compared to the Supreme Court judgment. Maury’s reaction would surely have been more indignant had he read the judgment but what he wrote is yet very relevant.

“No one”, said Maury, “regarded tyranny of words funny.” Anyone, he said, “who is thinking clearly and honestly can express his thoughts in words which are understandable and in very few of them. Lets write for the reader and not ourselves.”

The word “Gobbledegook” was coined by him. Explaining the invention he said, “First the word: It is long, sounds foreign, has four stories. You walk up without the benefit of the elevator. Second its definition: talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague and involved… Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler who was always gobbledegooking and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of the gobble there was a sort of a gook.” Gobbledegook “means not only big foolish words but wasted words.”

Those who do not “talk English” were called Gobbledegookers – “like the oracles or Panchhan Lamas sitting on top of the Tibet mountains in their monasteries talking nonsense to common people 7000 feet below.”

Scorning “long-winding heart-breaking wordiness”, Maury described speech as “a very important part of a person’s conduct. He must be held morally responsible for his words just as he is accountable for his other acts.”

Unless one utters words easy to understand, said Maury, how shall it be known what is said?

Maury’s article will apply both to officialese and legalese. Obscuring official language will deter popular participation in and the understanding of governance. But the need for clarity will be even more in judgments which communicate the law. In the absence of clarity about law both adherence to it and enforcement of accountability to it will be a casualty and paradoxically in the purported enforcement of law will be its erosion. And while law can be an ass it should never be allowed to become a clown.

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