January 29, 2008

#01-068: Doublespeak: Hiding Behind Words

a graphic with the words "eschew obfuscation," the first in black on a white background, the second in white on a black background, all in bold block capital letters

Note: Some leaders excel at "doublespeak," making good things sound bad, and bad ones good: they hide the truth. Let's see some examples!

Get Ready: What do you think the expression above means? Some people find it funny; do you know why? (See the answer below.)

A leader is speaking to his followers. Can you get the general idea of what he's saying?

Ladies and Gentlemen: The moment of truth has arrived. It is time for us to take the bull by the horns. We have been burning the midnight oil, and have left no stone unturned in seeking a workable solution. No thanks are necessary; it was all in a day's work. However, despite our efforts to get to heart of the matter, we are afraid that it was an exercise in futility. Though things seem fine now, this is just the calm before the storm. So now, the powers that be inform us that this is the beginning of the end. Good night, and good luck.

This is the main meaning of the message:

  1. There was a problem.
  2. They did their best to solve it.
  3. They failed, so it's time to give up.

Well, why didn't he just say so? This is a style of speaking that is meant to cover up an embarrassing mistake. This leader is trying to confuse his followers. In the Practice we'll look at ten clichés in this speech, and see how the speaker uses them to keep his meaning vague.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obfuscation

Practice: Match these clichés from the leader's speech to their meanings.

  1. all in a day's work
  2. beginning of the end
  3. burning the midnight oil
  4. calm before the storm
  5. exercise in futility
  6. heart of the matter
  7. left no stone unturned
  8. moment of truth
  9. powers that be
  10. take the bull by the horns

  1. a critical moment, a crisis. It may mean "I have bad news" or "You're not going to like what I have to say."
  2. to confront a problem directly, or face the truth of a situation
  3. "working all night." It claims that one has done everything possible
  4. searched in every possible place. In this case, searching for the answer to the problem.
  5. a way to turn away praise, like "don't mention it"
  6. maybe in this case "the cause of the problem"
  7. an effort which will fail no matter how hard one works
  8. means "things seem OK but everyone knows trouble is coming." based on the idea that, as bad weather approaches, things become very still.
  9. "our leaders," but without being so direct
  10. from this point on, failure is inevitable; there's no way to correct the situation, although it may be a while before the full effect is felt.

About the "Get Ready" question: "Eschew obfuscation" means "avoid being unclear." Some people find this expression funny because it uses words that few people know, so it is unclear itself! Good communication is based on clear, direct expression. Try not to hide behind your words!

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 29, 2008

This lesson received 96 visits on my old site between January, 2012, and July, 2021.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. e; 2. j; 3. c; 4. h; 5. g; 6. f; 7. d; 8. a; 9. i; 10. b