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Jack Smith

America is off the hook . . . as far as the true nationality of gobbledygook is concerned

June 17, 1986|Jack Smith

I would have thought that gobbledygook and the pretentious euphemism would be mainly American phenomena, not British, since Americans thrive on fantasies of easy success, and the language tends to extinguish class distinctions.

But thanks to James W. Daily of Redondo Beach I have a sheaf of clippings from the Letters to the Editor page of the London Times suggesting that verbal flimflam is widespread and commonplace in Britain, too.

The letters are very brief, and each has been placed under the standing headline "Meaningful terms."

A Mrs. Antony Jones, of Meadow House, Ashford Hill, Newbury, Berkshire, for example, writes as follows:

"Sir, On the outskirts of Oxford one sees signs to a Public Waste Reception Centre. In Berkshire, close to our village, the same convenience is signed Public Rubbish Dump."

Dr. C. I. M. Reekie, of 44 Willow Way, Ponteland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyne and Wear, writes, "Sir, May I add a recent addition to the educational vocabulary: 'human resource laboratory.' It means gymnasium.' "

Mrs. S. E. Norbury, of 2 Parkers Cottages, Cheriton, Nr Alresford, Hampshire, writes, "Sir, What rigorous training and searching examinations would my humble daily cleaner have to undergo to qualify as an 'environmental hygienist' at a certain Portsmouth hospital featured on television recently?"

John Crockford-Hawley, Wyvern School, Geography Department, Sandringham Road, Weston-super-Mare, writes, 'Sir, To add to our educational vocabulary the West Country's consortium supplier now sells 'simulator transparent.' It used to sell tracing paper."

Mr. C. D. Georgalakis, of The Georgalakis Partnership, Architects and Interior Designers, Ditching Common, Burgess Hill, Sussex, writes, "Sir, At a seminar on energy conservation where guests were invited to table questions, first giving their name and profession, I was most impressed and intrigued by an 'environmental physicist.' He was a plumber."

However, about half the curiosities reported in The Times have been brought back to England from America, which seems their more natural home.

Mrs. Henrietta Griffin reports a garment maker's redundancy. "Sir, When in New York some years ago, a friend of mine had to be taken to hospital very suddenly. I bought him a pair of pyjamas and the label inside read, 'Specially tailored to fit the human figure.' "

Mr. K. W. Johnson reports, "Sir, In one of your American contemporaries earlier this week, I noticed that what in that country used to be called a 'girdle' was advertised as a 'de-emphasiser.' Yours faithfully."

Two especially ingenious euphemisms were picked up right here in California.

"Sir," reported Mr. F. J. Bergin of The Athenaeum, Pall Mall, SW1, "I saw some pens on sale during a recent visit to California. They were described as 'having negative vulnerability to water entry.' It took me a few seconds to realize they were 'waterproof.' "

Mr. John Williams, Whitebeams, Rookley, Nr Ventnor, Isle of Wight, writes, "Sir, Last week in California my wife and I were shown over a property whose garden was a virtual wilderness to the extent that acacia trees had taken over the avocado orchard. The realtors description was a triumph of positive thinking and almost inferred an actual benefit--the garden, she enthused, had 'deferred maintenance.' "

Mike Christie writes, "Sir, 'Negative vulnerability to water' notwithstanding, the Germans have the edge on the Americans when it comes to enticing descriptions.

"About 10 years ago my father and I selected a brand of carpet tiles on the basis that not only did they have 'excellent anti-flammability properties,' but also 'excellent soil-hiding properties for improved appearance retention.' They never did catch fire, and they still don't show the dirt."

Meanwhile, on our own shore, George French of Torrance recalls that when he enlisted in the Marines in 1942 he left a job as "crane operator" in the open hearth of a steel mill, but on his return, in 1945, he found he was then a "hoisting engineer."

The other day I noted that I didn't mind if anyone tried to upgrade his self-respect by giving his job a more impressive title; but I wondered where it stops: If trash collectors call themselves sanitary engineers, what do real sanitary engineers call themselves?

I have the answer from Eph (Mrs. Gordon C.) Robeck of Laguna Hills.

"What do sanitary engineers call themselves? Considering the thousands of water, ground and air polluting wastes they must handle, perhaps they should be called garagemen of the universe.

"But having been married for the last 35 years to an engineer who is both civil and sanitary (what woman could ask for more?) I know that they are now called environmental engineers or scientists.

"Environmental caught on in the '60s and '70s. I doubt that there is a university anywhere that still calls that branch of engineering 'sanitary.' "

Mrs. Robeck adds a question: "Perhaps you could tell your readers why it is that reporters and announcers refer to a lectern as a podium. I doubt that there is a podiatrist who calls himself a lecternist."

I don't know why everyone calls a lectern a podium. I have noted several times that a podium (from the Greek word for foot ) is what you stand on, a lectern (from the Latin word for to read is what you lean on. Yet one reads of speakers pounding a fist on the podium; I always picture them down on their hands and knees, pounding away, while their speech waits silently on the lectern.

Yet program chairman almost invariably ask me, when I'm giving a talk, whether I'll require a podium.

Not wanting to embarrass them, I have learned to answer, "No, I'll just stand on the floor."

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