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Friday, September 04, 2009

POLITICAL SPEAK


I wonder how many of you know, dear readers, that the word “Gobbledgook”, being a nonsensical word or phrase designed to imply importance but in fact meaning nothing, has an actual birthday? The word was born on Sunday, May 21st, 1944, in the pages of “The New York Times Magazine”. And it is just one of the many American words born out of American politics.In 1812 the Massachusetts’s legislature contrived, with the help of Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced "Jerry"), to redraw the lines for the Essex County Congressional District, to insure who won the elections there. According to legend it was famed painter Gilbert Stuart who first examined the bends and curves of the new district and observed that, to him at least, a map if it resembled a salamander. But whoever said it first, it was Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Sentinel, who renamed the proposed district a Gerrymander, after the Governor. That name now applies, as a verb, to the redrawing of congressional district boundaries (Gerrymandering) to insure the election of one particular candidate or party.Almost as old is the word “Bunko”, meaning a fraud or a fraudulent spiel used by salesmen of bad or fake products. Police departments around the nation still have squads of officers assigned to uncovering fraud and cheating scams, named “Bunko Squads”. Some linguists say this word originated with a Mexican card game, a version of three-card monty, but that is just so much "bunk". Thirty years before the invention of the Mexican card game the word was used to describe a speech by Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina. Walker had been born in 1753 in the mountains of western Virginia. He worked as a store clerk in Charleston, South Carolina, and tried homesteading with Daniel Boone in Boonsboro, Kentucky. He fought in the American Revolution, and served in the North Carolina House of Commons, the state legislature. In 1816 he was appointed to Congress, to represent the Blue Ridge ‘hollars’ and the French River valley of Buncombe Country. The county was named after American Revolutionary War hero Colonel Edward Buncombe, who had been wounded and captured at the battle of Germantown, in 1777. Recovering from his wounds in occupied Philadelphia in May, Colonel Buncombe was sleepwalking, fell and bled to death when his wounds reopened. The new county named in his honor was so large it was locally referred to as “The State of Buncombe.” Facing contentious re-election in 1818 and again in 1820, Felix Walker quickly learned the value of a well publicized and well received speech. And on February 25, 1820, the House of Representatives debated the crucial issue of the “Missouri Compromise”, deciding wether or not to take the first step that would lead to the Civil War. In the midst of that debate Congressman Walker arose and began to pontificate about the wonders of Buncombe County. The leadership were ready to put the matter of the Compromise to a vote, and after listening to Walker’s rambling speech for several minutes, they urged Walker to stop wasting the congresses’ time and sit down. But Walker explained that his speech was not intended for the benefit of the congress, but for the "simple folk of Buncombe County back home". And then Walker returned to his endless platitudes. Almost overnight Walker’s speech was transformed from being about Buncombe to being “pure Buncombe” itself. And, with a little modification in spelling, it changed from "Buncombe", to "bunkum", and then to "bunk", as in a useless, pompus and empty speech, or "bunko" a false promise intended to further a fraud. Gobbledygook has a much simpler history than bunko, and more recent. It was the purposeful invention of the one term Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and later Congressman, the Honorable Fontaine Muaury Maverick. The mayor served only one term because a communist had rented a meeting room in the cities' Civic Auditorium. By law, Mayor Maverick could not refuse to rent the room to anyone. But because he failed to "lock out" the commie his opponents were able to rabble rouse a riot, complete with tear gas shells being lobbed about in front of the auditorium. This typical "Texas-Hysteria”, was in response to Maury’s defense of "Freedom of Speech", and almost got him lynched. And it allowed his opponents to brand Maury himself as a communist, which led to his defeat for re-election as Mayor. But that is beside the point.Maury Maverick later won election to Congress, where, during WWII, his honesty, intellect and energy convinced others to make him chairman of the "Small War Plants Committee", overseeing and coordinating the work of thousands of small factories contributing to the American war effort, seeking to avoid duplication of effort, shortages of raw materials and general waste. Being a man interested in results Maury quickly grew frustrated with the growing complexity of official language which prolonged the already almost endless committee meetings he had to attend. In his article for the New York Times magazine, Maury defined his new word as a type of talk which is long, vague, pompous, and uses mostly Latinised words "…when concrete nouns are replaced by abstractions and simple terms by pseudo-technical jargon…" all of which made him think of the mating call of the wild turkey’s back home, as in "gobble, gobble, gobble, gook". In a later memorandum Maury ordered, in pure Texas style, "Anyone using the words “activation” or “implementation” will be shot”. Of course no one was executed. But perhaps because no one was, the continued human attraction to verbosity has since produced nonsense such as "Pentagonese", "Journalese", "circumlocution", and other such gobbledygook words used to describe Maury’s gobbledegook. In an interesting (I think) side note, gobbledegook was the Maverick family’s second addition to the American lexicon. The first was their family name. There was a Maverick aboard the Mayflower. And a 17-year old apprentice, Samuel Maverick, had been struck down by 'lobster backs' at the Boston Massacre. But the most famous Maverick of all was another Samuel, this one born in Pendleton, South Carolina, in 1803. This Maverick, Samuel Augustus, graduated from Yale in 1825 and was admitted to the bar in 1829. A year later, he ran for the South Carolina Legislature, but his anti-secession opinions contributed to his defeat. In 1835 Samuel Maverick moved to Texas. He was one of two men from the Alamo elected to the Texas Independence Convention. And his career in politics thus saved him from being butchered by Mexican troops under General Santa Ana. Because of his political obligations he also missed the victory at San Jacinto. He was elected Mayor and then Treasurer of the city of San Antonio, and later served in the seventh and eighth Texas Congresses. He also dabbled in East Texas land speculation, and sometime in 1843 or 1844, as payment for a bad debt, Samuel Augustus took possession of a ranch around Matagorda Bay, Texas. The only problem was that Maverick had no experience in ranching and no interest in learning. When he saw that every other rancher had branded their cattle, Augustus decided there was no need for him to bother with the expense of branding his. In 1847, when Samuel moved back to San Antonio, he left his cattle under the care of his ranch hands, who saw no reason to pay more attention to their jobs than their absentee boss. They let the animals wander the open range. Cowboys who found unbranded cattle thus identified them all as the property of "Mr. Maverick", and mavericks thus became any unbranded cow or horse. Samuel Augustus Maverick favored Texas being annexated by the U.S., and after it was, he fought its secession from the Union in 1861 until he realized there was no stopping it. After the Civil War he opposed Reconstruction. When he died in 1870 he left holdings of over 300,000 acres and a reputation for independence - not being branded by any special interests. His son, Samuel Maverick jr., fought with distinction in the Civil War (for the south) and was promoted to second lieutenant. After the civil war Maverick jr. helped preserve the Alamo, donated "Maverick Park" to San Antonio, and lived to swear in his own son, inventor of the term gobbledegook, as Mayor of San Antonio. Maverick junior died in 1936 at the age of 98. And so he never had to deal with the gobbledygook his son did.
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1 comment:

  1. Great post! The Mavericks were one of the very first Anglo families in San Antonio. For decades, Maury Jr. wrote a wonderful column for the San Antonio Express-News. As a Texas state legislator in the 50s, he opposed Red-baiting bills and as an attorney in the 60s defended draft resistors. He tells a great story about his father as a New Deal mayor of San Antonio and the beginnings of the San Antonio Riverwalk, which began as a WPA project and which today attracts millions of tourists.

    It seems that Maury Sr and a friend were walking back from a "Democratic party function" when an inebriated Maury Sr tripped and fell into to the river, which in those days was little more than a deep ditch with water in it. He emerged sputtering and wet and said, "We have got to fix this God damn river."

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