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Rudd and the art of talking in circles

By Bill Collopy - posted Friday, 7 May 2010

Most 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”.

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This article was first published in Eureka Street on May 5, 2010.

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About the Author

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

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