Why the novel New Zealand law cannot curb jargon in government communication

Language, most dictionaries will tell you, is the “principal method of human communication” — in essence, it is a way to understand and be understood. Clearly, lexicographers don’t have much truck with officialdom. As the recent debate over a proposed law in New Zealand has shown, the purpose of bureaucratese is not to explain, but to obfuscate. The Plain Language Bill, if passed into law, will require government communications to the public to be “clear, concise, well-organised, and audience-appropriate”.

On the face of it, no one who has had to decipher an official document will disagree with the noble intent behind the law. In India, across languages, government communication is but a distant cousin of the spoken language. But, and here’s the nub of it, is legislation a cure to pomposity? And are sarkari babus the only ones guilty of using excessive jargon? Management speak (“ideate”, “stop thinking in silos”, “circling back”); the almost magical terminology of economists (“animal spirits” boost an economy guided by the “invisible hand”, as long as the “macroeconomic fundamentals are strong”) and of course, the obsequious writings of policy wonks hoping for government favour all fall into this category. The latter, in particular, find “paradigm shifts” in every “game-changing” act that they are involved with. Then there is the legalese in court judgments, and from eminent lawyers, which might as well be in hieroglyphs.

The ultimate problem, in New Zealand and beyond, is that it is difficult to legislate against pomposity. The “thought leaders” today are a bit like the castes of the past that wanted to ensure that knowledge remains solely their preserve — jargon, in essence, is the court language of the modern era. The babu — within government and without — doesn’t want to be understood. She wants to be respected, and in the absence of substance, multi-syllabic gibberish is the best so many people have to offer.


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