"Democratic" Trend in the
The linguistic changes, which have brought about such a
significant shift in the defining characteristics of formal and
informal language, are rooted in the massive social
transformation over the past hundred years. R. Quirk and G.
Stein cite the 1926 General Strike and the rise of democratic
socialism, which enabled the Labour Party to replace the
Liberals in competing with Conservatives as the alternative
party of government, as the examples of events that have
contributed to two social changes that have profoundly affected
One is a democratisation of British society and the other is a
dramatic rise in the general standard of living: the two together
making the mass of people – working-class and lower-middle-class -
much more self-confident (and hence more linguistically assertive)
and at the same time making them more highly valued by the powerful
(and more assiduously wooed by commerce, increasingly the target of
Changes in education have also stimulated the development of the
“informal” trend in the language. In a democratic age education is
viewed as a universal right, rather than the privilege of an elite.
It tends to become more and more widespread and therefore less
deeply based. One of the effects of this has been the loss of Latin
as an obligatory element in school education. If, according to J.
Enoch Powel, 1930s public school boys could translate from English
into passable Latin and Greek prose and verse, today written and
spoken English has become the tongue of those who do not know Latin.
To a person, who is familiar with Latin, a largely Latinised
vocabulary may be a source of great enrichment. But to one, who has
never come into contact with Latin at all, this very richness may be
a source of looseness and vagueness of expression or a cause of
temptation by the lure of meaningless grandiloquence.
The language thus becomes an instrument too difficult to handle
properly. Moreover, it is liable to deliberate abuse by individuals
and social and professional groups in order to mislead, distort,
deceive, circumvent, and obfuscate. One of the most important
consequences of democratisation in contemporary language use is the
move towards developing a “plain” English in official speech and
writing. From the Fowler brothers to Sir Ernest Gowers the language
of officialdom has been the object of much widely read criticism.
One of its chief characteristics, which is often condemned as
“pompous”, has been the use of words and phrases, drawn mainly from
the Romance layers of vocabulary. Typically, the composing official
chooses words, which have little popular echo, because he or she is
afraid of being accused by superiors or the public of lacking a
proper command of “dignified”, remote, and impersonal English.
The official jargon has been derided by names like officialese,
barnacular, Whitehallese, mandarine prose of the Civil Service
in Britain; and Federal Prose, Pentagonese, bureaucratese,
and Washington Choctaw in the United States. But the most
popular term for it by far, used on both sides of the Atlantic, is
gobbledygook. An American – the Hon. Maury Maverick, of Texas
- invented this evocative name for the language of bureaucracy. In
The New York Times of May 21, 1944, he explained what he
meant by the term:
People ask me where I got gobbledygook. I do not know. It must have
come in a vision. Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey
gobbler back in Texas, who was always gobbledy-gobbling and
strutting with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there
was a sort of a gook.
In Britain Sir Ernest Gowers and his book Plain Words
spearheaded the onslaught on gobbledygook. Intended for those “who
use words as tools of their trade in administration and business”,
the book was first published in 1948 and has been subsequently many
times reprinted. In its later, revised, editions the title has been
amended to Complete Plain Words.
In recent decades the onslaught on all kinds of waffle has been
energetically orchestrated and sustained by
Plain English Campaign (PEC). Set up in 1979 in the United
Kingdom by Chrissie Maher as a pressure group, it has evolved into a
commercial editing and training firm that positions itself as a
leader in plain language advocacy. PEC
encourages organisations to use simple, understandable language for
public information. It defines Plain English as "language that the
intended audience can understand and act upon from a single