Gobbledygook’s persistence

Few Americans remember him today, but Maury Maverick was a World War I hero and, for a time, a member of Congress. He later served as mayor of San Antonio, a job he lost when his opponents hinted darkly that he was a “communist fellow traveler” in a day when such hints had bite. He was an ardent New Dealer who returned to Washington at FDR’s request during World War II to run something called the United States Smaller War Plants Corporation.

Maury didn’t fit in all that well here, because he was at base a plain-spoken Texan. He came back to town at a time when government was a growth industry peopled by bureaucrats, technocrats and elitists who were proud of the fact few other than their peers could understand a word of what they were saying. The flood of legislation, regulations and unintelligible instructions that continues to this day had just begun, and Maury found himself spending more and more time trying to figure out what the bureaucrats in his own little agency were actually saying.

By early 1944 Maury had had enough. He wrote what The Washington Post at the time called “the most refreshing and … effective memo ever written in the Federal Service.”

This memo coined the word “gobbledygook,” used to describe the incomprehensible way government bureaucrats communicate their ideas to each other and their superiors — and, unfortunately, to the public, the ultimate target of their ideas. Maury instructed those working for him to “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’ or ‘implementation’ will be shot.”

The Post reported that Maury had tried for several hours without success to understand a report written in “bureaucratese” by one of his assistants, threw the report down, grabbed his Dictaphone and dictated the memo. He told the reporter that, on finishing it, “I was relieved. I felt as though my soul had been cleansed. For years I have been confused and frustrated by this strange language that’s used around here.”

As usual, however, the Post was only partially right. Maury’s memo may stand as the most “refreshing” ever written, but the problem it was written to fix has since metastasized. Since that day, presidents have ordered bureaucrats to speak and write what has come to be known as “Plain English” and agencies have assembled task forces to comply with such orders, but government gobbledygook remains the language of the feds.

Oh, there has been some progress. Private firms have sprung up to help because few bureaucrats seem capable of either thinking or talking outside their own semantic “box” and because large private entities have been infected with the same inability to communicate with ordinary people. All one has to do to realize the magnitude of the problem is to wrestle with the instructions that come with a tax form, cellular phone, video recorder or new toy.

Still, companies like Siegel+Gale have actually had some impact. These guys work with government and private industry to try to get people to say what they mean in ways that others will understand.

They were, for example, tasked some years ago by the IRS to help the service’s bureaucrats develop ways to let taxpayers know what they are and are not required to do in language that the taxpayers (or at least their accountants) might understand. That is, to put it mildly, a Herculean task. The rules obviously need to be made clearer than they have been, because folks like Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner still can’t seem to figure them out.

To give Siegel+Gale credit, their people came up with the 1040EZ form, which has made life easier for millions of U.S. taxpayers who don’t have to hire professionals to wade through the complexities of an indecipherable tax code. That was a good start, but most Americans at one time or another run headlong into regulations and government requirements that not even a character out of a Harry Potter novel can begin to decipher.

What that means, I think, is that it’s time to require government employees to attend mandatory courses in “English as a Second Language,” financed, perhaps, by our stimulus dollars under one more government program we could call No Bureaucrat Left Behind.

And for those who fail the course, we could always go back to Maury’s frustrated option as a solution.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.