Friday, April 16, 2010

In Praise of Gobbledygook

I have been enjoying the Government Printing Office's new blog, Government Book Talk, which I wrote about here. The latest entry concerns the new edition of the GPO Style Manual.

That reminded me of my favorite federal book about language, Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go. It was written by John O'Hayre and published by the Bureau of Land Management in 1966.

It is thoroughly outdated, of course. It assumes all women are secretaries, and I don't mean Secretaries of State. But as a guide to clear language and an antidote to gov-speak, it is hard to beat. Here is one of my favorite passages.

"Here's a pompous memo that rankled F.D.R. so much that he rewrote it and shot it back to the man who pomped it up in the first place. The memo dealt with what Federal workers were to do in case of an air raid:

Such preparations will be made as will completely obscure all Federal buildings and non-Federal buildings occupied by the Federal Government during an air raid for any period of time from visibility by reasons of internal or external illumination. Such obscuration may be obtained either by black=out construction or by termination of illumination.

Here's how F.D.R. dignified the memo by giving it simplicity:

Tell them that in buildings where they have to keep the work going to put something over the windows; and, in buildings where they can let the work stop for a while, turn out the lights."

I'll bet the memo writer hated to lose obscuration. It seemed to be his motto.

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