Political rhetoric: double-talk, gobbledygook, gibberish and jabberwocky?

I’m gobsmacked and flabbergasted at Donald Trump’s incessant gibberish—is this political rhetoric or jabberwocky? While the following promises not to decipher Trump’s or his advisors’ double-talk, it does uncover the origins of all of this gobbledygook.

Being a Canadian who doesn’t understand fully the American political system, I don’t usually follow the goings on or the shenanigans of American politicians all that closely. The entire Trump presidency afforded several laughs, true—in part because of the self-proclaimed “stable genius” has constantly displayed lack of judgment, but also because of his propensity toward butchering the English language. What’s more, I join a multitude of others who believe any biographies written about him belong in the paranormal, science fiction or humour section—assuming my local library or bookseller has the temerity to carry them at all.

As we near President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, I’ve been watching the candidates a little more closely. Certainly Trump’s myriad word salads have provided plenty of fodder for political satirists, and I’ve found myself laughing out loud not only at Trump’s nonsense, but also at the jabs—justified, in my opinion—Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah and others have taken at him and his entourage.

Consider the phrase coined by Kellyanne Conway, U.S. Counselor to the President, during a Meet the Press interview. Describing then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers Trump’s inauguration, Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts”.

I’m not here to discuss whether “alternative” is the correct way to characterize Spicer’s demonstrably false claim. This was certainly not the first occurrence: Spicer made a number of false and controversial public statements. Yet Conway defended characterization of Spicer’s outrageous claim, defining “alternative facts” as “additional facts and alternative information”.

Hardly surprising, Conway was widely mocked on social media and sharply criticized by journalists and media organizations. Many described the phrase as Orwellian, so much so, in fact, that, within four days of the January 22, 2017, interview, sales of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four had increased 95-fold.

So, is Conway’s sound bite an example of double-talk or double-think?

Double-speak and double-talk

Given the confusing times in which we live, it’s little wonder that I think of George Orwell’s 1946 “Politics and the English language”(PDF; 143 KB; 12 pages; link will open a new browser window), which illustrates the mental vices from which many suffer. Three years later, Orwell, in his Nineteen Eighty-four, coined the terms newspeak and oldspeak. The former refers to the deliberately impoverished language, characterized by greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar, promoted by the state. The latter denotes the English language, which the Party hopes to replace.

Double-speak, derived from newspeak and oldspeak, denotes a particular variety of language or characteristic mode of speaking. By extension, double-talk refers to verbal expression intended to be, or which may be, construed in more than one sense. It is deliberately ambiguous or imprecise language and is used especially when referring to political language subject to arbitrary national or party interpretation.

Perhaps this explanation sounds like gobbledygook, double-speak meant to overwhelm the audience with technical jargon and unfamiliar words.


Gobbledygook is Texas lawyer Maury Maverick’s name for the long, high-sounding words of Washington’s red-tape language. In 1944, the plainspoken Maverick, expressing disdain for his colleagues’ propensity for stuffy, obfuscatory, bureaucratic language and jargon, wrote an official memo to his colleagues and subordinates, urging them to speak and write in plain English. It read, in part

Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about… Anyone using the words ‘activation’ and ‘implementation’ will be shot!

Asked later why he chose the word gobbledygook, Maverick replied

Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledy-gobblin’ and struttin’ with ludicrous pomposity. At the end of this gobble there was a sort of … ‘gook.’

Synonymous with gobbledygook is bafflegab.


Official or professional jargon that confuses more than it clarifies, bafflegab first appeared in the January 23, 1952, edition of London’s The Daily Telegraph.

A new word for lovers of officialese is bafflegab, invented by Mr. Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the American Chamber of Commerce. He has won a prize for the word—and its definition: ‘Multiloquence characterised by a consummate interfusion of circumlocution … and other familiar manifestations of abstruse expatiation commonly utilised for promulgations implementing procrustean determinations by governmental bodies.’

Is it just me, or does Smith’s definition read like jabberwocky?


Jabberwocky is the title of a nonsense verse poem in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 classic of children’s literature Through the Looking-glass. The book’s protagonist, Alice, in conversation with the chess pieces White King and White Queen, finds a book written in a seemingly unintelligible language. Aware that she is travelling through an inverted world and realizing that the verses on the pages are written in reverse, Alice holds a mirror to one of the poems and reads the reflected “Jabberwocky”.

Derived from the name of Carroll’s fabulous titular monster and first cited in the April 10, 1908, issue of The Daily Chronicle, jabberwocky denotes invented or meaningless language or nonsensical behaviour. “To jabberwocky” means to write or speak in jabberwocky style – something I sincerely hope I haven’t done here.

I’m sending a KISS to all those who follow my blog: remember, keep it simple and succinct.

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