Thursday, August 28, 2008


Had an interesting bout with payroll the other day, which leads me to toady's word. A dictionary definition of bafflegab clarifies the word as, "incomprehensible jargon" and compares it to "gobbledegook". This definition is vastly insufficient.

Let's begin our discussion with an excerpt for an actual notification from a government contractor "suggesting" its workers take annual leave during building maintenance:

[Maintenance] has announced that electrical power to [our building] will be shut down beginning Friday. We understand that routine functions will cease at that time and non-emergency personnel will not be permitted in [our building] during the power outage.

Employees who are not able to work during the power outage may, with supervisory concurrence, adjust their work schedule for the [pay period before the outage] to complete 40 work hours prior to [Friday]. Alternatively, employees may elect to take Annual Leave for the work hours missed due to the power outage.

Not one worker in my office fully understood the message. Vaguely some realized that a choice was being given, but none understood what the choices were. The notification gamely suggested it was addressed to employees not able to work during the power outage, but since all employees were not be permitted in the building, it wasn't clear that the message was addressed to EVERYONE.

That's because it was written ambiguously, using jargon and conflicting modifiers with the explicit intent to cover [management's ass] by deliberately clouding the message's real intent (we are forcing you to work overtime or take annual leave). This message was written in bafflegab.

Milton A. Smith, the assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce, coined the word in 1952 after a maddening day trying to explain a written order to a colleague. He decided a special word was needed to describe his office's special blend of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity and complexity” in its bureaucratic language.

At the presentation of an award from the Washington Report, Milton Smith was asked to briefly define his word. He described it as:

“multiloquence characterized by consummate interfusion of circumlocution or periphrasis, inscrutability, and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilized for promulgations implementing Procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.”

Expect to see that on your next annual review.

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