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Why Do We Say That?

June 2024
1min read


“Every presidential message…should be (a) in English, (b) clear and trenchant in its style, (c) logical in its structure and (d) devoid of gobbledygook.” So wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in a memo as an assistant to President John F. Kennedy in 1963, to a State Department functionary after wading through “the latest and worst of a long number of drafts” sent by the department for the President’s signature.

The striped-pants set are by no means the only people who indulge in gobbledygook. Over the years, the Pentagon has asked for bids on such items as aerodynamic personnel decelerators (parachutes), interlocking slide fasteners (zippers), and wood interdental stimulators (toothpicks); and a lieutenant of my basic-training company back in the late 1950s called the folding shovel with which I was all too familiar a “combat emplacement evacuator.”

Gobbledygook dates only from World War II. Credit for it goes to Maury Maverick, a former congressman from Texas (1935-39), who as chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation became tired of going to meetings where people rambled on about “maladjustments co-extensive with problem areas” and “alternative but nevertheless meaningful minimae.” He retaliated on March 30, 1944, with a memo decrying “gobbledygook language.” “Let’s stop pointing up programs, finalizing contracts that stem from district, regional or Washington levels ,” he wrote. “No more patterns, effectuating, dynamics . Anyone using the words activation or implementation will be shot.”

The colorful new word quickly caught on. People asked Maverick where gobbledygook came from, and in The New York Times Magazine on May 21 he replied: “I do not know.…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.”

Incidentally, the Maverick family has another lexicographic distinction. Maury Maverick’s grandfather Samuel Augustus Maverick (1805–70) didn’t bother to brand calves on his Texas ranch. By 1867 unbranded calves had become known as mavericks , and the meaning of that word was extended within another 20 years to include people who showed a strong streak of independence.

—Hugh Rawson

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