Thursday, April 09, 2009

Deep gobbledy joy!

Not so long ago one of my colleagues e-mailed the SENSE forum with a query about a copywriting term. “I need to crowdsource for this one,” she wrote. “What's the name for the key bit of text, often a direct quote, that you extract from an article and feature in a box?” As it turns out the answer is “pull quote” which sounds intriguing but isn’t what I want to talk about now. What really got my language cortex going was “crowdsource”, new to me but a term I supposed had been around for years. Google proved me right. There it was, defined by Grant Barrett in a New York Times column on the buzzwords of 2007: “Crowdsource ‒ to use the skills or tools of a wide variety of freelancers, professional or amateur, paid or unpaid, to work on a single problem.”

Wow, I thought. Crowdsource. What a good description of how the SENSE forum works. It’s so good I can almost forgive the word its gobbledygooky flavour. But what I can’t and won’t ever forgive is gobbledygook, for being what it is.

The G-word was coined in 1944 by one Maury Maverick in a memo banning "gobbledygook language" at the Smaller War Plants Corporation. Mr. Maverick made it up in imitation of a turkey's gobble in reaction to his frustration with the convoluted language of bureaucrats. So it's an American word but it has its equals in other languages including French (charabia), German (Kauderwelsch), Dutch (koeterwaals) and Italian (gergo incomprensibile). It's the converse of clear and concise, so confusing that no one can be expected to understand it.

Though I hate to admit it, it can be fun to play with, like on this Gobbledygook Generator presented by the Plain English Campaign, a UK organisation who have been fighting the good fight against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information since 1979 and who have some really good (free) guides to writing in plain English and handy (free) software like "Drivel Defence" to help you check for plain English in your texts (both docs and web texts).

Several other tools are available to evaluate readability, including the wonderfully named SMOG (Simple Measure of Gobbledygook), a formula that estimates the years of education needed to fully understand a piece of writing. It’s important to understand the issue of readability as it can have serious consequences. As Amy S. Hedman points out in Using the SMOG formula to revise a health-related document (American Journal of Health Education), “nearly 50% of American adults are functionally or marginally illiterate and lack skills to read and understand recommendations for preventive health, self-care and screenings, and treatment, thereby leading to poorer health outcomes. One solution to health illiteracy is for health professionals to … develop skills, strategies, and tools to ensure their messages are understood by the intended audience.”

Another solution, for all writers (not just health professionals) wanting to reach an audience, is to subject your writing (docs, web texts) to the pernickety pen of a professional pedant, a language editor who cares about the importance of clear communication and can help you to achieve it. Not that I’m plugging my own language editing service, of course, not (ahem). It’s just that I’d thought you’d like to know that on ReadAble, the readability test tool, NEEDSer scores an easy 8.7 on the SMOG scale, which means it should be easily understood by 12th-graders, that is, 17-18 year olds, my youngest clients. Needless to say (ahem), that goes to show I practise wot I preach.

Let me leave you now with a master practitioner. Rejoico! Stanley Unwin apparates in advertibold for Amstrad Wordyprocessor from approximilotions 1987. Featrisodes manily fantalistic wordings from the worldidode's grotelidiest linguabold. Deep joy!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely article and so good to hear a bit more Stanley Unwin. I still have the LP that he did with the Small Faces (Ogden's Nut Gone Flake) and enjoy every moment of his story telling.