Is your business communicating in ‘bafflegab’?

In 1952, Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce was presented with a plaque for coining a punchy new word.

He first used it in the Chambers’ Washington Report, criticising the Office of Price Stabilization for the bureaucratic language it used in a price order.

Milton had spent many frustrating hours trying to explain the order to his colleague, and eventually decided the maddening blend of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity and complexity” needed a new word to describe it.

So he created one: bafflegab.

As he accepted his award, Smith was asked to define his new word succinctly. This is how he did it:

…multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.

It raises a laugh and it reminds me of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby:

The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume; but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.

(Translation: “I did it”).

But there’s a serious point. Today’s jargon of ‘going forward’, ‘step change’, ‘facilitating’, ‘solutions’, ‘out-task’, ‘best practice’, ‘roll out’, ‘populus at large’, ‘outcomes’, ‘turnkey’, ‘client side’, ‘paradigm shift’ and so on is nothing more than the worst kind of bafflegab or gobbledygook.

And if your business is using it in print or online, you’re alienating customers.

But don’t just take my word for it – it’s what Michael Shanks, former chair of the National Consumer Council, has also discovered:

Gobbledygook may indicate a failure to think clearly, a contempt for one’s clients, or more probably a mixture of both.”

So say it simply – if you appear to hold people in contempt, they won’t buy from you.

3 responses to “Is your business communicating in ‘bafflegab’?”

  1. Lucy Smith says:

    Whenever clients send me their own drafted copy, nine times out of ten ‘utilise’ will appear somewhere.

    And I take great, great pleasure in rewriting the copy and ensuring that it is expunged in favour of ‘use’. And all the other words that people who don’t know how to write like. My favourite was ‘impactful’.

  2. Ben Locker says:

    I so agree. I don’t think I’ve ever used ‘utilise’ in my copy. I’d rather shoot myself.

  3. Emily Heath says:

    Oh dear. I use ‘best practice’ a lot when talking about things to clients. I’m struggling to think of a good alternative!

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