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.