The Student News Site of University of Arizona

The Daily Wildcat

82° Tucson, AZ

The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The untimely demise of plain speaking

    Once upon a time, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, we spoke so fine. There was a time when everyone in the world used language to say exactly what they meant.

    That time has passed. A shocking number of people in our country have left the old rules of discourse behind. In their place, they’ve adopted bureaucratese – a mode of speaking which aims to prevent understanding.

    Government and business leaders use bureaucratese to keep people from figuring out exactly what it is that they’re doing. Liberal agitators use it because they dread the notion of offending anyone. And office workers use it because everyone else in the office does.

    The new way of speaking avoids clarity and directness, those odious allies of understanding. Instead, it seeks to confuse the listener into tacit agreement. What other reason can there be for making everything sound so harmlessly nice, so devoid of content?

    The plan to restructure the UA, President Robert Shelton wrote on Sept. 3, is “”reflective of our overall strategic priorities.”” Nothing prevented him from writing “”reflective of our overall strategy”” – and even the word “”overall”” is pretty unnecessary – except that politically correct urge to coat everything one says in a thick layer of bureaucratese.

    Saying that something is “”reflective”” of something else reveals another favorite bureaucratic tactic: putting everything in the passive tense. No “”strategic priority”” made the administration decide on a plan, because a “”strategic priority”” is not a thing with a mind of its own.

    One odd thing about bureaucratese is that those who indulge in it frequently go to the other extreme. They occasionally express what they really mean, in phrases so clipped, vague and content-free that they serve just as well as doublespeak to cover up what it is they really mean.

    Thus, speaking to UA faculty on Sept. 11, Provost Meredith Hay described the restructuring plan this way: “”Everything is on the table. There are no holy cows. . . . We’re going to have to be bold. And some of it is going to be painful.”” At first, this might seem like laudable candor. But what exactly is going to be painful? According to Hay, it was nothing more than a plan “”to consolidate, merge and restructure our programs across the entire campus.”” We are promised “”bold”” and “”painful”” action and rewarded with meaningless mush.

    Another curious quality of bureaucratese is its obsession with describing the purpose of something down to the smallest detail. To pick on Hay again, most people wouldn’t say “”to consolidate, merge and restructure”” something. To most people, “”consolidating,”” “”merging”” and “”restructuring”” are all different ways of saying the same thing.

    The bureaucratic mindset, however, at once recognizes that these things are all slightly different, or can be made to seem different. “”To consolidate”” can, of course, mean “”to merge,”” but it can also mean “”to strengthen.”” And to “”restructure”” can mean anything.

    No institution in our lives has gone untouched by the disease of bureaucratese. As every office worker knows, the workplace is a pit of polite, passive-aggressive doublespeak. “”Let’s get on the same page here,”” says the beleaguered boss. “”We need to touch base,”” says the chipper secretary. “”Let’s see how the numbers look,”” says the stressed caretaker of the week’s important “”file.””

    It would be easy to dismiss bureaucratese as the product of sterile institutions – the workplace, the administrative office, the academic community. But the bureaucratic mindset is equally alive and rotten outside the workplace.

    “”We’re trying to raise awareness,”” say the student leaders of a thousand liberal advocacy groups, transforming a simple enough thing – telling people about something – into a kind of statistical goal. And what are we supposed to be aware of, anyway? Of “”other perspectives.””

    This obsession with turning something over and over to see all of its “”perspectives”” is simply another brand of bureaucratese. We are taught to see all sides of something, to “”unpack”” it, to purge it of “”assumptions”” and “”contradictions”” which riddle it like worms in an apple. Even a good thing which fails to be all things at once can be dismissed as “”problematic.””

    Ordinary actions, too, must be purged of their meaning and turned into buzzwords. Enforcing the rules becomes mere “”accountability.”” To do anything means to become “”empowered.”” Doing something helpful becomes “”reaching out,”” which then mysteriously turns into a noun: “”outreach.”” What we need, student leaders tell us, is more “”outreach,”” as if it were medicine.

    At the heart of every user of bureaucratese lies a deep fear of acting. In the office, one is always “”looking at”” doing something instead of doing it. Academics cringe at making any sort of “”value judgment”” of anything they study, since that would risk poisoning their work with “”assumptions.””

    It might be argued that we’re all better off learning to speak like this, that it’s better not to make dangerously clear and unambiguous statements, that bureaucratese makes the world a nicer and safer place to live for us all. But no one, not even the most professional bureaucrat, sincerely believes that. If you do, try talking like this to your mother and see how long it takes her to hang up.

    – Justyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Wildcat. He can be reached at

    More to Discover
    Activate Search