Spend enough time with me and you’ll soon realize that I’m an encyclopedia of useless pop culture references. And by useless, I really mean useless. I think I’m the only person alive today who remembers the complete lyrics to the Banana Splits theme song; catch me in a good enough mood and I’ll probably be humming it to myself. Whenever I make a mistake, I almost always follow with the words, “Damn it, Spock.” And when my temper flares, I have a tendency to warn people, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
But the reference I probably called on most during my time in uniform (and out of it) comes from a short sketch from comedian Steve Martin’s 1978 standup album, A Wild and Crazy Guy. In a short segment, he ponders the fun of teaching a 3-year old child to speak senseless gibberish, envisioning the moment when the child raises a hand to ask a question in class: “May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?”
Those eight words encapsulate our inability to communicate in common, understandable terms. Simplicity might be a principle of war, but don’t expect us to dummy anything down when we have an encyclopedia of buzzwords to draw from.
An Exercise in Confusion
Only recently, U.S. Army Europe and Africa announced a media day for the upcoming exercise, Dynamic Front 22. The press release, which was widely panned by members of the media, explained the focus of the exercise: “interoperability designed to increase readiness, lethality and interoperability across the human, procedural, and technical domains.” While it probably says something about my linguistic conditioning that I was more shocked by public affairs mixing Oxford and AP-style commas in a single sentence, that’s a conversation for another day.
Who writes a media advisory like that? It’s a multinational artillery live fire event. That’s not all that complicated to say. Since you’re communicating to a civilian audience of journalists, maybe taking the simple road would be the better choice? Nope. Let’s break out the Buzzword Bingo card and have some fun. And you can bet that the media will play along.
May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?
It’s all about the benjamins
We already have enough trouble communicating clearly with the outside world, so why make it any worse? We are renowned for our overuse of acronyms, and the lists of “milspeak” terminology are, well… everywhere. Phrases like “embrace the suck” and “boots on the ground” are so common that they have become widely adopted in civilian circles. But the media advisory for Dynamic Front is a different phenomenon altogether.
We have a tendency to drift toward five-dollar words, something plagues everything from email messages to PowerPoint briefings. Daniel Oppenheimer, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote in a 2006 Applied Cognitive Psychology article that some people enjoy “deliberately using overly complex words… to sound more intelligent.” His article – aptly titled “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity” – illustrated the “negative consequences of needless complexity” in communicating. We all know someone who (mis)uses complex terminology to sound more intelligent, but they usually end up annoying everyone around them in the process.
But what about when the use of sesquipedalian – yes, it’s a real word – terminology explodes into more formal space, like a media advisory, a white paper, or a concept document? More often than not, it’s tied to a budget play. Why would you invite the press to a live fire exercise when you can offer them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe “readiness, lethality and interoperability across the human, procedural, and technical domains”? The dizzying array of buzzwords in any concept document is likely to leave your head spinning. And while the language of white papers tends to tone down some of the worst misuse of complex language, they should all be printed with donation forms to eliminate any confusion as to their true purpose. That white paper on the battlefield application of the Multidomain Johnson Rod Calibrator is going to make some defense contractor rich.
Simplicity isn’t just a principle of war, it’s a principle of communication. Mark Twain understood this and possessed a remarkable talent for communicating common sense to the common man (or woman). Is it asking too much to expect people to communicate in simple, basic terms? Are we so desperate that our default is a multisyllabic collection of meaningless adjectives? We can do better.
May I mambo dogface to the banana patch?