Subscribers in Australia may already know this book, as it appeared there last year under the title Death Sentence. It attracted much media attention, and has now been published in the UK.
Don Watson’s book is a polemic that rails against a certain kind of obfuscated public language; his introduction calls it “the language of leaders more than the led, managers rather than the managed”. His principal argument is that poor business writing, especially the jargon of management, marketing and human resources, has corrupted that of political life and other fields, especially academia. Most of his examples derive from business; considering his former position as speechwriter for the former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, surprisingly few are from Australian politics.
He castigates turgid jargon-ridden prose such as “identify major change drivers impacting on the sectors”, “penetration, development and expansion of the vertical market segment and strategic close of high impact deals” or “an exigency to restrict dissemination of this publication to professional end-users and institutions only”. He also derides military euphemisms from Iraq such as embed and degrade (as in “we have degraded 70% of a body of Iraqi soldiers”). He hates commitment in particular, which is indeed often a weasel word but which doesn’t deserve the repeated opprobrium he heaps on it.
While the book contains interesting reflections on the state of public language, ultimately it fails because his diatribe doesn’t go anywhere. It’s a cantankerous ramble with little structure and no conclusion except to say he hopes he has made people more aware of the issue (though he isn’t sanguine his book will help because “powerful forces, including possibly the whole tide of history” are against reform).
Perhaps the biggest difficulty with taking the message to heart is that the book is just another in a line — traceable back to Plato — that tells us the language is going to the dogs. Every generation has one and Professor Watson has updated the views of George Orwell for our times. Is today’s business-speak so much worse than the “yours of the 14th ult. to hand” stereotyped writing of an earlier age’s commerce? Politicians have been talking a great deal while saying very little for as long as the breed has existed; are we really that much worse off now because they’ve changed the words they use?
Solving the problem in business won’t be easy. Too few people have the ability or time to work out exactly what they want to say and then say it. They fall back on boilerplate text, shop-worn clichés, or inarticulate paraphrases of their real meaning. That isn’t a matter of correct grammar, good punctuation or impressive vocabulary, and curing it will need more than style guides or diatribes.
[Don Watson, Gobbledygook, published in the UK and Canada by Atlantic Books on 2 September 2004; hardback, pp155; ISBN 1-843-54356-7; publisher’s price £12.99. Published in Australia as Death Sentence by Knopf in November 2003; hardback, pp198; ISBN 1-74051-206-5; publisher’s price AUS$29.95.]