Issue 1 |

Tracing the origins of gobbledygook

by on November 14, 2014

“O brave new word,
That has such meanings in’t!”
– Shakespeare, Sort of.

I am especially fond of words used to describe sayings that border on the illogical or incomprehensible. Case in point: the word ‘nonsense’, which can be broken down into the two morphemes ‘non’ + ‘sense’. Just so you know, the ‘non’ prefix here signals ‘absence of’; hence ‘nonsense’ literally refers to the ‘absence of’ sense.

Reader, please excuse the technical language, but the mighty tools of morphology are at our disposal and by golly, we will wield them. We will wield them to break the chains that bind morphemes, to get to the heart of the matter: what did words use to mean, what do they mean now, and how did they evolve?

This particular issue will focus on tracing the origins and semantic (i.e. meaning) changes of a few words related in meaning to ‘a lack of sense’. But first, I think it important to learn the difference between a morpheme and a sea bream.

Helpful Task 1: Distinguish a morpheme from a sea bream

A morpheme is not a drug. It is the smallest grammatical unit of meaning a word can have. It cannot be further divided into meaningful components. So ‘sense’ is a morpheme but ‘sen’ and ‘se’ are not morphemes, because the latter do not have individual meaning. A sea bream is a type of fish.

In any case, it’s always useful to learn new things about words. You never know when you might need the information. Read on and surprise family members, friends, and future partners with your newfound knowledge and a keen sense of what absurd really means.

1. Absurd

Meaning: At odds with reason

Sometimes used in undergraduate conversations. For instance, “that’s an absurd amount of money to pay for an education”. The word comes from Classical Latin’s absurdus, ‘ab-’ (the prefix meaning ‘away from’) + ‘surdus’ (meaning ‘deaf’ or ‘silence’), thus earning the metaphorical and idiomatic notion of ‘out-of-tune’, meaning ‘discordant’ or ‘jarring’.

ab- + surdus → absurd
‘away from’ + ‘silence/ deafness’ → ‘out-of-tune’

It survived well into late 14th Century Middle French as absurde, eventually taking on the modern meaning of ‘at odds with reason’.

Trivia: The English language possesses such a word for historical reasons. The Norman French took over the English court in 1066, and French became the official language used in courts. Thus, many English words have French roots because they were borrowed from the French language, particularly around the beginning of the 14th Century.

2. Ludicrous

Meaning: So ridiculous, insane or absurd that it merits (scornful) laughter

Not to be confused with the rapper, Ludacris, this word, like ‘absurd’, comes from Classical Latin. “Ludicrous” has its origins in ‘ludere’ (‘to play’) or a derivative of ‘ludere’, ‘ludicrum’ (a performance or stage-play) + ‘-ous’ (the suffix may mean ‘abounding in’).

ludere + -ous → ludicrous
‘to play’ + ‘full of’

‘Ludicrous’ therefore literally means ‘full of play’. In the 17th Century, it was used in the now obsolete sense of being jesting, playful and related to sport or performance. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this example from the Puritan theologian, John Owen (circa 1648), “It is not a ludicrous Contest that we are called unto. It is for our Lives and Souls that are fought for”.

From the 17th to the 19th Century, however, ‘ludicrous’ came to mean witty or frivolous. As in, “Have you read Sterne’s ludicrous book, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?” It was only from the 19th Century onward that the word began to be used in its current sense of describing something contemptuously and as “laughably absurd”—as in, “Have you watched that ludicrous video of Charlie Schmidt’s cat playing a keyboard?”

3. Gobbledygook

Meaning: Language that loses meaning or is difficult to understand because too many technical terms are used.

Stephen Pinker uses it brilliantly: “Academics in the softer fields dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.”

Unlike ‘absurd’ and ‘ludicrous’, ‘gobbledygook’ was not borrowed into the English language or “built out of preexisting parts like prefixes, suffixes and roots” (i.e. morphemes) as Pinker puts it, but coined by a man infuriated with the kind of bureaucratic jargon used during WWII. This word is interesting for its novelty (only 70 years old!) and the sheer number of records documenting its inception, including a first-hand account from its creator-wordsmith, Maury Maverick.

Maverick was the chairperson of the Smaller War Plants Corporation in 1944. Annoyed with the excessive use of lengthy and vague Latinized terms in government memoranda, he sent out a terse memorandum to the whole corporation with the following words:

“Stay off gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For the Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about… There are no ‘levels’—local government is as high as Washington Government. No more patterns, effectuating, dynamics. Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot.”

Local newspapers lapped it up. The Washington Post, for instance, published an editorial poking fun at Maverick’s memorandum:

“On several evenings of late, we have heard faint percussive noises coming from the direction of Mr. Maverick’s headquarters on Indiana Avenue, suggesting that the firing squads may already have been at work. Of course, it may only have been thunder.”

His explanation for how the word was formed?

“Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook.”

Other (cool) sites

1. Charlie Schmidt’s Keyboard Cat — The Original!!—aiyznGQ

2. “Gobbledygook? Lay off it, Maverick says” (Pittsburgh Press, 31 March 1944),4291444

3. Gartner, Michael. “Gobbledygood”. (The Milwaukee Journal, 26 May 1985),6217091

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