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Rudd and the art of talking in circles

Terribly Tongue Tied, Flickr image by bmhkimMost esteemed reader, you honour us with your presence.

Rituals of courtesy can mask fear and loathing, though this takes patience. In certain cultures, to state one's aims in blunt terms can be as rude as prolonged eye contact. A virtual dance of the seven veils is expected: no clumsy gestures or bald statements; the roundabout approach, with honorifics and courteous nods.

Not in the sunburnt country, mate. Aussies belong to a group of so-called developed nations, where we tell it like it is and people know where they stand. So goes the myth.

But words of power take an indirect path here as they do in any kowtowing or curtseying culture. Certain sworn enemies must refer to each other as 'the honourable member' or 'my learned colleague'. Certain sworn officials are known as 'Your Honour,' 'Your Excellency' or 'Mr Speaker'. Physicians without a doctorate are called 'Doctor', Catholics address a celibate priest as 'Father,' and a raft of protocols is required for conversation with any member of the royal family. One knows one's place, ma'am.

Our prime minister, the ex-diplomat, has raised circumlocution to an art. In his speech to the Brookings Institution in April 2008, he outlined 'a natural complementarity between these two philosophical approaches and a complementarity that could be developed further in the direction of some form of conceptual synthesis'.

In his address to the London Progressive Summit that same year, Rudd said there had to be 'a greater synergy between, let's call it our policy leadership in this, which has been focused so much, legitimately, on targets and global architecture, almost reverse-engineered back to the means by which you can quickly deliver outcomes, and on the demand side in our economy we're looking at potential advances in terms of 20 to 25 per cent range if you do this across the board ...'

Whew. Is this language or labyrinth? Sometimes jargon — rather than Julia — fills in until the boss returns. Talk about a scenic route. Is he showing off, obfuscating, sugaring a pill, or all three? I suggest that our best known Sinophile has an aversion to plain prose. Why use one word when ten will do?

Most esteemed public servant, we do note that in recent months your polysyllabic heart rate appears to have slowed. What's changed? Could it be the patter of Tony feet? The polls have spoken. They favour populism over prolixity. Time to restart that 'working families' mantra. Plain beats purple, right?

Problem: false prophets of clarity often assail our collective ear thus, armed with some oily sales pitch and using plain words as camouflage. Caveat emptor, anyone? We need to be on our guard against lulling simple rhythms, such as those purveyed on a certain Australian bank's website with linguistic mutton dressed as lamb. 'Our brand promise, Determined to be different, was launched on 26 January 2008 and encapsulates the determination we have to be a different bank, and to be different from all banks in Australia. Determined to be different is underpinned by the new truths of banking, which are five key platforms for our differentiation ...'

Huh? This drivel might mollify a few shareholders but nobody's the wiser for it. Does the writer even care? Meaning comes second after intoning the buzzword liturgy. Anyway, I'm suspicious of scenic language from banks, in case they charge a listening fee.

Surely we deserve better communications from business and government. Instead of bombastic terms like instigate, impacted or suboptimal, official correspondence should contain simple alternatives like 'start', 'affected' or 'imperfect'. Instead of managerial claptrap like push the envelope or drill down, we are entitled to intelligible speech like 'test the limits' or 'analyse'.

Henry Lawson and Henry Handel Richardson would shudder at the balderdash from contemporary commerce. Alfred Deakin and Edmund Barton would barely recognise the bureaucratese. Why surrender to this argot of management consultants and PR spinners? A plague upon them!

Examples of clear speech abound in our history. One hundred years ago, Nobel-prize winning scientist, Sir William Bragg, spoke at Adelaide University on the usually penumbral subject of physics. 'For ages,' said Bragg, 'men have asked themselves "What is light?" When the ancient writer recorded as one of the great acts of creation the command of God, "Let there be light!", he testified truly of its importance to mankind, and bore witness to the extent to which the seers of his day had grasped that importance.'

Fiat lux. That's more like it. If he were writing today, Bragg might be tempted to use vogue phrases such as 'illumination event' or 'luminosity occurrence'. In a less pretentious Australia, even esoteric writers didn't call a spade a 'manually-operated excavation implement'. There were giants in those days. We have colossi now but all too many lose their way via peregrinations of prose. Let there be light.

Bill CollopyBill Collopy is a Melbourne novelist who teaches writing programs at Swinburne University. He is assembling a book about how we misuse language.

Topic tags: bill collopy, kevin rudd, circumlocution



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Existing comments

Obfuscation as a cover for inaction? Our latter-day Humphrey Applebee and his staffers have turned it into an art form. Do I see evidence in the latest poll that the electorate is finally waking up? Notice that the ABC is no longer running The Hollowmen. Too close to the truth?

Ian | 05 May 2010  

Your frequent diatribes against Kevin Rudd are destructive of his efforts for the longterm benefit of or country. You show clear bias against the Labor Party. Is it merely because the clumsy, inexperienced alternative went to a noted Catholic, and Jesuit, school?!

Marjorie | 05 May 2010  

I'm looking forward to reading Bill Collopy's book in the misuse of language - maybe a step on the way towards social rejection of spin in all professions.

Peter Woodruff | 05 May 2010  

From 1944-50 I was Personal Typist to Mr. (later Sir) John Jensen. I lost count of the number of copies of Sir Ernest Gower's classic "Plain Words" which I slid into envelopes addressed to other Permanent Heads, CEO's of major companies, politicians, etc., together with the slip "With the compliments of J. K. Jensen, Secretary, Department of Supply and Development, and Chairman, Secondary Industries Commission". Needless to say, it was required reading for the young up-and-coming clerks in our Secretariat. So cheering to read this article - and hope for another crusade.

Shirley | 05 May 2010  

There's something self-indulgent about writers such as Bill Collopy who has joined the throngs of media hackers (foremost of them all are those who work for the media arm of the Liberal Party, The Australian) to demonise Rudd. Their constant references about the insulation and school building stimulus rorts fail to mention the shonky small businesses who took advantage of a Labor government largesse.You can just imagine those Howard battlers laughing all the way to the bank.

Now after 11 years of inaction on climate change, a Labor government's effort to rectify Howard's neglect is sabotaged by corrupt small businesses, irresponsible journalists and a recalcitrant Opposition that is bent on taking back the government they lost, at the expense of the national interest.

They have tried everything, these naysayers, from Therese's private wealth, to Rudd's poor background, his religious affiliation (even some self-confessed Laborites don't like Rudd because he's a Protestant (sic), to his delay in implementing his climate change policy. Now, it's the way he communicates, according to Collopy it's 'circumlocution'.

The fact that Abbott, an intelligent product of the Jesuits, mouthed empty words, appears to be vacuous when it comes to policies, is homophobic, sexist and plays the race card by pretending to be concerned about population growth (aka impending arrival of millions (sic) of asylum seekers) is OK because he speaks plainly.

Rudd has been publicly acknowledged to be the hardest working PM this country ever had. He has changed the world's perception of us, from a Right wing conservative country that has ignored its region to one that has carved a prominent place in the contemporary global landscape. If someone like me has no problem in understanding Rudd, why does a wordsmith like Collopy have a problem? Is he being 'academic' or simply self-indulgent? Careful Bill, your right wing cassock is showing!

Alex Njoo | 05 May 2010  

I love a sunburnt impact
A land of rolling regional areas.

There is nothing inherently pro-Abbott about criticising Rudd's language style, but there is something utopian about Collopy's claim that 'we deserve better communication from business and government.'

In a country that does not systematically teach public speaking (and where, as a result, most speeches in most circumstances are poorly composed and delivered), it is remarkable how Australia's politicians are even worse than the average.

This is a perfectly democratic form of leadership: our elected representatives lead the way in refusing to communicate charismatically; in doing so they represent their voters' preference that nobody be held accountable to standards of expression.

Is Labor particularly bad? Earlier this week I heard a talk a Victorian minister gave that was so sloppy it seemed like a contempt of the audience. But I have also taken the time to trawl through Hansard, and I can assure readers that Liberal, the Nationals, and the Greens are all dominated by rhetorical klutzes.

Sad but true: this is something the despots and dictators of the world are typically much better at.

Tom Clark | 05 May 2010  

Rudd tries to show that he is "educated and intelligent". Most Australian now become aware that Rudd is to Australia what Jimmy Carter was to the USA. Rudd may go down in history as the worst leader Australia ever had. His American style smile is no longer fooling the people.

Beat Odermatt | 05 May 2010  

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