Nfld. & Labrador

Bafflegab is alive and well: Optimizing a mass mortality event is just one of our problems

Whether they intend to or not, many politicians, companies and officials prefer vague and bureaucratic language, John Gushue writes.

Whether they intend to or not, many politicians prefer vague, bureaucratic language

Mass mortality event, anyone? Both the Newfoundland and Labrador government and the owner of a aquaculture operation in Fortune Bay used the phrasing to describe what killed 2.6 million salmon. (Chris O'Neill-Yates/CBC)

A doozy of a news release showed up in our newsroom Thursday afternoon.

"TC Transcontinental announces the optimization of its printing platform in Atlantic Canada," said the title of a statement from the printing company whose name might ring a bell because until 2017 it owned the St. John's Telegram and other newspapers in Newfoundland and Labrador.

That's an optimistic kind of headline, and not at all in step with what the release is actually about. Here's a line that tells you more: "The decision to optimize TC Transcontinental's printing platform in Atlantic Canada unfortunately results in about 15 permanent layoffs."

Ahhh. Layoffs.

News releases are a place where — all too often — plain language goes to die.

For instance, after more than two million salmon died in their cages earlier this fall in Fortune Bay, we started seeing phrasing like "mass salmon mortality event" show up. One of the most significant things about the whole Northern Harvest story is the timeline: that is, it took weeks for a clear picture to emerge of what had actually happened. It certainly did not help things that both the government and the company use phrases that are so bureaucratic and vague.

American lawyer Milton A. Smith is credited with creating the word "bafflegab" to describe language that is inherently hard to understand. He fused two words — "baffle" and "gab" — and came up with a clever way of describing words that confuse rather than explain, or that disguise meaning rather than disclosing it.

I sometimes think people avoid plain language because they're afraid of looking dumb. Noun clusters and technical-sounding language — and I'm looking at you, "mortality event" — must mean expertise, right?

Not really. Plain language actually means clear thinking. It means putting ego aside and putting the person reading or listening to the message first.

Plain language means simplicity

Several years ago, the city council in Calgary adopted a plain language policy, so that information coming from the city would not be enveloped in vague, bureaucratic phrasing. The policy means saying things so that "the majority of people can read and understand your message the first time they read it."

Premier Dwight Ball and other Liberal cabinet ministers rely on messaging of 'the Way Forward' at numerous events and speeches. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

That's it. Simple as that.

But what if the speaker's goal is not to be understood, but to promote an agenda? Governments, businesses and those who serve them have long taken comfort in the embrace of obscure language. Often, the objectives are sheerly political.

A search of all the Newfoundland and Labrador government news releases this year shows just over 300 results for documents that include the phrasing "The Way Forward," which was the platform of the Liberal party in the last election and which is deeply stitched into Confederation Building messaging.

It's hard to know where party politics ends and basic government services begin.

Information can easily be politicized, even weaponized — but that doesn't mean its clear. You know a government is having clarity problems when it quickly reuses its words to define those words. A few months ago, the Department of Natural Resources told us, "The asset life extension project will extend the life of the Terra Nova FPSO." That clears that up!

Passive voice deletes accountability

Then there's the passive voice, which officials everywhere adore. I recall one non-journalism job I had early in my career in which a supervisor told me to rewrite my notes and remove who had said what in a meeting. "We never say that," he said. Instead, I was told, use phrases like "it was noted," "it was decided" and "it was felt." Why? Well, that kind of thing can come back to haunt you, evidently.

George Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language more than seven decades ago. It remains relevant in a very different era.

That of course ran against the grain of what I knew from my then-interrupted journalism career, and indeed what I learned while studying at Memorial University. Professors like the great Jean Guthrie showed me the power of the active voice and the risks of the passive voice. With the latter, accountability is off the table. So are clarity and, often, easy understanding.

By the way, governments, companies and others are not doing anything new. Muddling the language is a time-honoured tradition.

Milton Smith coined "bafflegab" in 1952, which was just a few years after George Orwell introduced us to "doublespeak" in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. A few years before that, Orwell wrote the essay Politics and the English Language, which stands up as sage advice for plain, clear writing.

You can find it easily online, including here.

I really wish that more people in positions of power took it and similar messages to heart.

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About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.


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