Pedantique-Ryter rants about incomprehensible words

In a recent newspaper column about methods of drying hands, I read the following (to me) incomprehensible paragraph:

The fundamental superiority of paper never looked to be in doubt, though. With paper, you didn’t have to wait restlessly for half a minute for the dryer to finish its bloviation. You didn’t have to fear a malfunction. You could dab at spots on your tie, or dry a washed face, or wipe sweat from your brow.

No, me neither.

The piece, by Samanth Subramaniam, was about the struggles between the producers of paper towels and hot-air hand dryers to win business in public toilets. I had a context; but the word remained incomprehensible.

I consider myself reasonably well educated and yet I was stumped.


Researching meanings for incomprehensible words

dictionary open at the word "dictionary" a solution to incomprehensible words

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

I went back to my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. The 20 volume version.
And lo! there it was NOT.
No bloviation. No bloviate either.
My OED doesn’t recognise the word at all.

Now I was not only stumped but cross.

So I went on-line. And I discovered this for bloviate:

bloviate |ˈbləʊvɪeɪtverb [ no obj. ] US informal
talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way.

President Warren G Harding

President Warren G Harding

And the origin was given as follows:

Bloviation is a style of empty, pompous political speech popularized by United States President Warren G. Harding, who, himself a master of the technique, described it as “the art of speaking for as long as the occasion warrants, and saying nothing”. The verb “to bloviate” is the act of creating bloviation.
In terms of its etymology, according to one source, the word is a “compound of blow, in its sense of ‘to boast’ (also in another typical Americanism, blowhard), with a mock-Latin ending to give it the self-important stature implicit in its meaning.”

“Self-important stature”? Quite so.

I would also add that, in my experience, hand-dryers don’t talk, either at length, or in an inflated or empty way. They just blow hot air.

Oh sorry, Mr Subramaniam. Were you trying to be clever there?
If so, you failed, I’m afraid.

word "clarity" with spectacles : the solution to incomprehensible writing

It is NOT clever to use words in a way that mystifies readers. Either the meaning must be clear from the context — which was not the case here — or the word must be known to the average reader of the organ in question. If the writer fails on both counts, as here, he risks making the reader feel small, or annoyed, or both.

President Harding’s writing lacked clarity, too

Further research produces the following by H L Mencken. Describing President Warren G Harding’s bloviation, Mencken wrote:

“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

Balder and dash. Splendidly put. Writers, please note.
(Note also that the Libertà website’s style checker objects strongly to having eight consecutive sentences/clauses starting with the same word. But a quotation is a quotation, so there’s nothing to be done. Besides, sometimes repetition does make the point.)

Orwell’s advice on clear writing style (for politicians and others)

George Orwell with BBC microphoneWriters do well to pay heed to the wise words of George Orwell from his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. (Orwell’s target was political writing, and hence non-fiction, but fiction writers can learn from this, too.)

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

That bloviation paragraph appears to have broken not only rule 2, but also rule 5. I’d add that, in my view, it includes something “outright barbarous” as well, but opinions may differ on that.

Incomprehensible Americanisms?

Bloviate isn’t the only incomprehensible word on offer across the pond.

Apparently our American cousins like to create such pompous (and incomprehensible) words. What about this one, found while I was researching bloviate:

absquatulate |abˈskwäCHəˌlātverb [ no obj. ] humorous, chiefly N. Amer.
leave abruptly: some overthrown dictator who had absquatulated to the U.S.A.
DERIVATIVES absquatulation |abˌskwäCHəˈlāSHənnoun
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: blend, simulating a Latin form, of abscondsquattle depart, and perambulate.

Squattle? Absquatulate?
The mind boggles. And defining a word as “humorous” doesn’t improve its clarity one jot.

Two countries definitely divided by a common language.

Dedicating Thank You

Is this Dame Isadora under that huge hat?


I. Pedantique-Ryter



26 thoughts on “Pedantique-Ryter rants about incomprehensible words

  1. Sue McCormick

    Americans coining horrible words?

    I think we think we’re being funny. I, personally don’t adopt them — and usually ignore them.

    Although inside our family we may coin them. And again (inside the family) we treasure the “new words” that get coined by typos. One of the family favorites is “problem sloving” found in an index to a book I was copy-editor for. The typo was corrected, but our family has “sloved” problems ever since.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Sue, thank you for making my day. I shall immediately adopt “problem sloving” which is splendid.

  2. Mike Hall

    My reaction – as an Englishman – was a bit different to yours as I’d actually heard the word before and so knew what it meant. Hence I just thought that the journalist was incompetent in their misuse of the word (or maybe it was deliberate and they were being too clever by half).

    And as for where I’d read the word, it was in an American (of course) novel, a romance in fact, where it was used in conversation and the meaning was clear from the context. Plus it was on a Kindle and a quick finger press brought up both dictionary (Oxford Dictionary of English) and Wikipedia definitions to confirm my contextual deduction; electronic reading has its advantages. Still it remains an unattractive word though possibly a necessary one in this world of endless talking heads on TV?

    The other two you found, which I’m glad to say were new to me, are both horrible and unnecessary and I hope I’ll never see them again.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Welcome to Libertà, Mike. You are clearly better read than I if you’d met this horrible word in a book. I am now beginning to wonder if the etymology might not be “blow + deviation”. But whatever its origins, I shall never ever use it. So ugly. So unnecessary.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Quite right, Liz dear. But then, as a member of the Libertà hive, you would say that, would you not?

  3. janegordoncumming

    Never having heard the word, I would have taken it as an amusing neologism appropriate to those irritating and energy-wasteful hand driers, but you’re probably right.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Apparently, Jane dear, the hand dryers may be less energy wasteful than creating and disposing of paper towels… The article in question went into that in some detail.

  4. lesley2cats

    I am APPALLED! How dare these people ruin our beautiful language? Oh, dear, whatever am I going to do with an American daughter-in-law? Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Dame Isadora, and reminding us of the wise words of Mr Orwell.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Sadly, it’s not our language any more, Lesley. English lends itself to the creation of new words and English speakers around the world keep creating them. Did you know, for example, that “realise” (as a verb) was created in the early 20th century? Yet we use it as if it had been around for ever. The late Alistair Cooke was excellent on such issues.

  5. jjackson42

    We’ve had any amount of bloviation on our TV screens recently. (sadly)

    I’m sure all of us could come up with examples of our politicians rodomontades and folderols! (from every part of Westminster)

    I’ll stick with George Orwell and your own excellent advice.


    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Sounds like a variant on “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. And suits the case, too.

  6. Elizabeth Rolls

    I read somewhere recently that a study has shown hand dryers are far more unhygienic than paper towel, because they blow fecal matter about with gay abandon. As for bloviate – I’d never seen the word before. But I’d argue that it may have its uses in describing what comes out of the mouths of politicians with actually intimating that they have the power of sentient speech. And possibly takes into account the fecal matter as well!

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Indeed, the article I was quoting did include a great deal of information about both the hygiene effects of paper towels vs hand dryers and the climate crisis effects of both. It is worth reading, provided one can overlook “bloviate”.

      As to politicians, I would suggest that there are plenty of existing words that we may use to describe them. “Drivel” and “waffle” come to mind. Or as Mencken said, “balder and dash”.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I am not convinced by “my bad”, Elizabeth dear. Consider: “my” is a possessive pronoun which qualifies something possessed i.e. a noun. “Bad” is not a noun. The English equivalent of “mea culpa” is surely “my fault”, or “my mistake”, is it not?

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