In So Many Words

Books of Educational and Informational Comics from Larry Paros


Book I: What's That You Say? (The Use and Misuse of Language)


Much of what poses as communication today often turns out to be just so much gibberish — language that makes little sense, is obscure and pretentious, or is merely a joke of sorts. Like its earlier forms, gibber and jibe-jabbe, it derives from the Old Italian gabare, "to prattle" or "hoax."

Gabarem, in turn, comes from Jabir ibn Hayan, an 8th century Arabian alchemist, occultist and metaphysician. Jabir's studies were controversial, and aroused the suspicion of the authorities, who suspected him of doing the Devil's work and kept him under a state of constant surveillance. But Jabir was a clever fellow. To avoid leaving incriminating evidence around, he transcribed most of his work in an indecipherable form, hoping the thought police would write off his jabir-ish (gibberish) as so much nonsense.

Gibberish works fine for bureaucrats and low-level hustlers; it doesn't cut it, however, for those in power. From the Olympian heights of the halls of Congress to the middle echelons of the IRS, to the lowliest branch of the Department of Motor Vehicles — the language of choice is gobbledygook. It's a term first coined by Congressman Maury Maverick of Texas whose grandfather, the famous rancher, was the original and legendary "Maverick," and another story altogether.

Back in 1944, Maverick the Younger slapped that label on the inflated and tortured language of the New Deal, describing gobbledygook as "a phenomenon that results when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions, and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon."

Asked the source of his designation, Maverick replied, "Perhaps I was thinking of the old turkey, 'Gobble,' back in Texas who was always gobbling and strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of the gobble, there was a sort of gook." Today, it goes under many other names, including "Pentagonese," "legalese," "journalese," or just plain "circumlocution." You can also spell it with an "e" or with a "y." But that doesn't really matter. Gobbledegook or gobbledygook, it all sticks in your craw.

How best to describe this convoluted verbiage with which we are bombarded daily? Try preposterous, from the Latin pre, "before," and "posterus," coming after — a preposterous situation, being one where what should properly come first comes last and vice versa — not unlike placing the cart before the horse.

This inept juxtaposition, however, also transforms all that "ass-backwards material" a.k.a. the news into something "ass-forward." In the end, however — backwards or forwards — we are left with our heads up our you-know-what.