Why New Zealand’s New Law Can’t Limit Jargon in Government Communication

Language, most dictionaries will tell you, is the “primary method of human communication” – essentially, it’s a way of understanding and being understood. Obviously, lexicographers have little to do with administration. As the recent debate over a bill in New Zealand showed, the purpose of bureaucracy is not to explain, but to obfuscate. The plain language bill, if passed, will require government communications to the public to be “clear, concise, well-organized and responsive to the public.”

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, through languages, government communication is only a distant cousin of spoken language. But, and here is the crux of the matter, is legislation a remedy at the pump? And are the sarkari babus the only ones guilty of using excessive jargon? Management speaks (“imagine”, “stop thinking in silos”, “go back”); the almost magical terminology of economists (“animal spirits” stimulate an economy guided by the “invisible hand”, as long as the “macroeconomic fundamentals are strong”) and of course, the obsequious writings of political buffs who hope for the favor of the government all fall into this category. The latter, in particular, find “paradigm shifts” in every “game-changing” act in which they are involved. Then there is the legalese in the judgments of courts and prominent lawyers, which might as well be in hieroglyphics.

The ultimate problem, in New Zealand and beyond, is that it is difficult to legislate against the pump. Today’s “opinion leaders” are much like the castes of the past who wanted to ensure that knowledge remained their exclusive domain – jargon, in essence, is the court language of the modern age. The babu — inside and outside government — does not want to be understood. She wants to be respected, and in the absence of substance, the multi-syllabic gibberish is the best so many have to offer.

About Thomas Brown

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