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
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 |ˈbləʊvɪeɪt| verb [ no obj. ] US informal
talk at length, especially in an inflated or empty way.
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.
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)
Writers 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.)
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- 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.
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 |abˈskwäCHəˌlāt| verb [ no obj. ] humorous, chiefly N. Amer.
leave abruptly: some overthrown dictator who had absquatulated to the U.S.A.
DERIVATIVES absquatulation |abˌskwäCHəˈlāSHən| noun
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: blend, simulating a Latin form, of abscond, squattle ‘depart,’ and perambulate.
The mind boggles. And defining a word as “humorous” doesn’t improve its clarity one jot.
Two countries definitely divided by a common language.