The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Gobbledygook’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

What connects the word ‘gobbledygook’ with the word ‘maverick’? To discover the link, we need to delve into the origins, or etymologies, of both words. But first, let’s consider how we came to have the word gobbledygook to refer to meaningless jargon or nonsense.

First of all, how is gobbledygook spelt? Is it gobbledygook? Or gobbledegook? The Oxford English Dictionary lists both, although has gobbledygook in its header, for reasons that will become clear. Both are acceptable ways of spelling this distinctive word. Now we’ve got the spelling sorted out, how on earth did such a word come about?

The word ‘gobbledygook’ (or ‘gobbledegook’) was first recorded in the Second World War, when it was invented by Maury Maverick, a congressman from Texas, who used it to describe bureaucratic doubletalk. In a memorandum dated 24 March 1944, Maverick wrote: ‘Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For the Lord’s sake be short and say what you’re talking about.’

There are two things we might observe about this appeal to use plain, direct language. First, Maverick’s context implies that, specifically, it is jargon he is worried about: he wants those he’s addressing to lay off the overly technical and specialised language that ‘fouls people up’ (i.e., confuses people), in favour of brevity and directness. ‘Calling a spade a spade’ might be another way of phrasing this, in a popular idiom.

The second thing we might note is that Maverick used the word ‘gobbledygook’ before the word ‘language’, implying that he viewed it as a sort of adjective, much as if he’d written ‘stay off the specialist language’. One wouldn’t write, ‘stay off the jargon language’ but simply ‘stay off the jargon’, so when Maverick coined the word, he viewed it as more of an adjective than a noun – although a noun it has come to be, when the majority of people use it. These days, people would simply say, ‘stay off the gobbledygook’.

But where and how did Maverick come up with the word? The ‘gobble’ part is a clue. Maverick appears to have been inspired by the sound that turkeycocks make: first ‘gobble’ and then ‘gook’. The word has come to mean simply ‘pompous and unintelligible jargon’ which, to the uninitiated, makes about as much sense as the noise of a turkey gobbling (and gooking).

Since the word is onomatopoeic in that its sound reflects its meaning (apparently nonsensical consonants strung together), it’s perhaps little surprise that gobbledygook very quickly took off as a term. Indeed, the OED has another citation from 1945, just one year after Maverick’s inaugural use, in the Tuscaloosa News, a local newspaper in Alabama: ‘The explanations sound like gobbledegook to me.’ The spelling may have (slightly) changed, but the meaning was already clear – unlike the very jargon at which Maverick’s neologism took aim.

So, gobbledygook can best be described or defined as language, but especially jargon, which is long-winded, or pretentious, or else so specialist in its references as to be unintelligible to most people. Although the word has come to be synonymous with ‘nonsense’ or ‘gibberish’, it’s usually a particularly official kind of gibberish, used in bureaucratic, technological, scientific, or political contexts.

Indeed, sticking with the war context out of which Maverick’s word emerged, it’s worth noting that the word features (somewhat anachronistically since the show is set during the First World War) in Blackadder Goes Forth, where General Melchett hears Blackadder use it and takes a shine to the word, deciding to use it in conversation. Baldrick, very much the village idiot of the show, mishears the word as ‘gobble-a-duke’.

So, what connects the word ‘gobbledygook’ with the word ‘maverick’? Well, Maury Maverick was, as his name implies, a descendant of Sam Maverick, a Texas engineer and rancher in the nineteenth century.

Samuel Maverick’s name was the source of the eponymous coinage ‘maverick’, which originally referred to his free-roaming and unbranded cattle and later, by extension, to anyone who is unconventional and goes against the norm.

So the man who gave us the word ‘gobbledegook’ was a descendant of the man who gave us the word ‘maverick’: two very useful words, especially when describing politicians.

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