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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Gobbledygook is Growing

Gobbledygook is a growth indus­try. Verbal obscurity, gigantic, intertwined sentences, semantic blahs, bureaucratese and legal esoterica put people to work.

There are people who produce Gobbledygook, people who interpret Gobbledygook and people hired to help other people adversely affected by insensitive Gobbledygook. It’s all part of the GNP.

There are even people working to make fun of Gobbledygook. Take the Washington Star staffer who collects the daily Gobbledygook examples from government agency docu­ments. People from around the coun­try submit examples (write to Gob­bledygook ’76, Metro Desk, The Washington Star, 225 Virginia Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20061) and col­lect $10 if they are printed. That little column is working a renewable re­source; it may be the closest thing to infinity that journalism possesses. It also needs no explanation because, standing alone, Gobbledygook is, well, Gobbledygook.

BUT GOBBLEDYGOOK does not often stand alone. In its fertile con­text it displays a versatile perni­ciousness. One-upmanship, for exam­ple. Gobbledygook turns people who can’t fathom the fog into functional illiterates. It makes them feel inferi­or, weak, “out of synch.” It leads them to think that if they can’t understand, that is because they are not lawyers of highly education enough.

Well: illiterates, take heart, there is a counterinsurgency (oops) brew­ing against Gobbledygook. The first active insurgent was probably Herb Denenberg who began to admit quietly to himself, while he was Pennsylvania’s insurance commis­sioner, that he could not comprehend the meaning of insurance policies sent to him for approval. The next in­gredient in the rebellion was Denen­berg’s self-confidence. It didn’t shat­ter. He is both a lawyer and has a Ph.D. in insurance. If he didn’t understand the policies, millions of policyholders couldn’t, either.

SO DENENBERG went to work. In May 1973, he turned down an insur­ance company’s policy that contain­ed one sentence of 120 words. Then he devised a readability scale of zero to one hundred on that scale. Time Magazine scored 52.30; The Wall Street Journal, 13.39; Einstein, 17.72; the standard auto policy, 10.31, and homeowners policies had zero or negative scores.

Gradually, companies began to discover the joys of readability. Insurance agents, adjusters, lawyers and judges began freely to admit that Gobbledygook was not their mother tongue. Enlightenment fol­lowed admissions of incomprehensi­bility.
The wave reached Citibank — that towering pillar of Gobbledygook in New York City. Why, someone ex­claimed, our customers may not understand our installment loan con­tracts, even assuming they can see the tiny print. So, an expert in primi­tive English was hauled out to re­write the instrument. Out came a one page, simple consumer loan note clearly stating the terms of indenture between consumer and Citibank.

A SHORT WHILE later, Kemper Insurance Companies in Chicago put out simplified homeowners policies in large print with bright blue sectionheadings — “Agreement,” “Defini­tions,” “Coverages.” “Perils In­sured Against,” “Exclusions” (such as nuclear power hazards) and “Conditions.” A few insurance companies are doing the same.

Something else is also helping. It seems that some judges believe that what consumer cannot reasonably understand in a form contract they should not he held to. Imagine what could happen if Their Honors began applying similar guidelines to the tomes of tax regulations and forms.

Even that caricature of federal bu­reaucracy, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, an­nounced last week an immediate change of procedures. According to Secretary F. David Mathews. one thousand agency employees who write the rules will take special classes in English to help these regu­lations more easily understood.

READABILITY IS not yet a mass movement in executive suites, how­ever. Neither in Washington nor on Wall Street. You see, Gobbledygook is an instrument of power. By con­fusing the consumer or citizen, it can deplete the will to resist. By seeming to offer many meaningless choices (as among insurance policies), it can lead to indiscriminate consumer sur­render. By obscuring language, it can obscure bureaucratic account­ability.

So Gobbledygook is not about to become a historic memory. As any exercise that Concentrates power and provides employment, it has a cer­tain momentum. But if people de­mand clarity, the juggernaut will slow down. And if people demand justice, Gobbledygook’s rout will begin.