A Short History of Anglo-French Diglossia

"Democratic" Trend in the Language
Gobbledygook portrayed as a monster by Plain English Campaign

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 the language: 


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 advertisers).

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 reading".

Copyrighted material




  Teutonic Language with a French Flair

  The Difference in Register

  What Is "Anglo-French Diglossia"?

  The "Inkhorn Controversy"

  To Borrow or Not to Borrow?

  Coping with "Hard Words"

  The Short Word vs. the Long

  The Antiquarian Movement

  From "Open" to "Hidden" Diglossia

  The Quest for "English English"

  The Drive for "Plain English"

  "Democratic" Trend in the Language


  English Today

  English among Other Languages

  Plain English Home

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Courtesy of Plain English Campaign