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Most of us have come across a paragraph which sounded meaningless to us or which made us wonder if we were intellectually equipped to read it. That may have been the case, but sometimes one writes a text, using specific terminology just to fool people. You read it over and over again and can't make out what the author means. Politicians do that too. What is it called?

This paragraph, from a book by Felix Guattari sounds like what might be an example to me:

“Existence, as a process of deterritorialisation, is a specific inter-machinic operation which superimposes itself on the promotion of singularised existential intensities. And, I repeat, there is no generalised syntax for these deterritorialisations. Existence is not dialectical, not representable. It is hardly livable! ( Intellectual Impostures, p. 158).

... might be an example, if the author's intention were really to confuse. I'm not sure, though.

  • 4
    "If you can't blind them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit." – Hellion Oct 24 '14 at 16:31
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    Shouldn't it be purposely instead, esp., in this context? – Kris Oct 24 '14 at 16:47
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    @Cyberherbalist That's what I was afraid of. Afraid that I might have only two neurons. – Centaurus Oct 24 '14 at 22:46
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    I've re-read that paragraph a few times, and I still can't grasp it. It's academic writing, and as such, it is aimed at a specific field/audience who will already be familiar with those terms and concepts. It is not written for the layman (I hope not!) However, I don't think it is the author's intention to be deliberately incomprehensible. Because who would buy his book then? That type of circumvoluted speech used to be common with politicians. Nowadays they will avoid sounding so high-brow or pompous, because of voters. – Mari-Lou A Oct 25 '14 at 8:43
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    Existence does, indeed, become almost unliveable, certainly, almost unbearable, in the presence of such hyperbolic flaggymataric cattywampus, written by a grandiloquent snollygoster - useful only to abibliophobes and worthy of the shout 'gardyloo!' Such tarradiddle! - it's causing me to become quite bumfuzzled... – Jelila Jan 19 '18 at 7:13
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An academic or pseudo-intellectual who uses convoluted phrases in order to intimidate the lay person, ostentate his or her position, and possibly, disguise the fact that they have nothing of any importance to say, is commonly called a windbag.

If you are looking for a fancier term for verbosity, I present pressologia

Perissology means using more words than necessary to explain one’s meaning, a pleonasm. Since perissology is three letters longer than pleonasm but means the same, you may argue it’s an example of the related habit of using long words when shorter ones will do.

In A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z by Bernard Marie Dupriez, we learn that it is indeed a tactic, a form of strategy for filling an empty page or moments of silence. However, as I understand it, it needn't be incomprehensible.

pressology is one of the principle devices used by the media in their production of filler or padding

A similar rhetorical device is battology, which Richard Nordquist defines as "A rhetorical term for needless and tiresome repetition in speaking or writing". It reminds me of the Italian verb battere and gerund form battendo, which can be translated to hammering, and the English idiom to beat around the bush when someone is deliberately being evasive or unclear.

But the best word I found, and one which didn't have me scrambling for my dictionary, is the pejorative and informal term academese.

Academese is characteristic of academicians who are writing for a highly specialized but limited audience, or who have a limited grasp of how to make their arguments clearly and specifically" (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2009).

A further example of academese is provided here, the words which I have placed in bold are the academese expressions.

Vernacular Equivalents to Academese

"[E]ffective academic writing tends to be bilingual (or 'diglossial'), making its point in Academese and then making it again in the vernacular, a repetition that, interestingly, alters the meaning. Here is an example of such bilingualism from a review of a book on evolutionary biology by a professor of ecology and evolution, Jerry A. Coyne. Coyne is explaining the theory that males are biologically wired to compete for females. Coyne makes his point both in Academese, which I italicize, and in the vernacular, staging a dialogue in the text between the writer's (and the reader's) academic self and his 'lay' self: 'It is this internecine male competitiveness that is assumed to have driven not only the evolution of increased male body size (on average, bigger is better in a physical contest), but also of hormonally mediated male aggression (there is no use being the biggest guy on the block if you are a wallflower).'

source: Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale Univ. Press, 2003

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Obfuscation:

To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand: A great effort was made... to obscure or obfuscate the truth - Robert Conquest.
To render indistinct or dim; darken; the process of darkening or obscuring so as to hinder ready analysis.

Is it a literary device? I can't find it listed as such. Is it a rhetorical device? Absolutely. It is practiced by politicians and academics, and criticized by sharp minds like Mark Twain and George Orwell.

  • More relevant information on WP: "Obfuscation is the obscuring of the intended meaning of communication by making the message difficult to understand, usually with confusing and ambiguous language. The obfuscation might be either unintentional or intentional (although intent usually is connoted), and is accomplished with circumlocution (talking around the subject), the use of jargon (technical language of a profession), and the use of an argot (ingroup language) of limited communicative value to outsiders." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obfuscation – Kris Dec 12 '18 at 8:04
  • A mention of "abstruse style (as in literature and art)" redirects to above page Obfuscation. – Kris Dec 12 '18 at 8:07
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It might be useful to examine Wikipedia's article on the subject of a book where the quote also appeared:

Fashionable Nonsense

The Wikipedia article in itself is delightful. It cites one philosopher, Bruce Fink, who was incensed by the book and claimed that the authors are 'demanding that "serious writing" do nothing other than "convey clear meanings".' Which made me roll around the floor, laughing, concerning the very idea of serious writing conveying obfuscation as its product!

You can't make this stuff up. Or rather, you can, and the very pretentious pseudo-intellectuals among us will get all huffy about the idea of conveying clear meanings.

  • I presume the fact that it is absolutely impossible from your post alone to get any idea of what you're really talking about is intentional here? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 26 '14 at 16:03
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: you can assume this is intentional, if you want to! :-) – Cyberherbalist Oct 27 '14 at 17:14
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I would suggest academic obscurantism, a phrase in current use that perfectly describes this phenomenon, especially since the rise of postmodernism. Obscurantism was originally coined in 18th century Germany to criticize opponents of the Enlightenment, but its meaning has expanded to include

a style (as in literature or art) characterized by deliberate vagueness or abstruseness

an act or instance of obscurantism

Thus Ardath Mayhar admonishes his fellow writers in Through the Stone Wall: Lessons After Thirty Years of Writing:

Writing is for people, not for those who practice artistic one-upmanship or academic obscurantism. Any mode undecipherable to anyone except a professor of creative writing or another avant-garde writer is going to die soon and completely.

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If a writer or speaker appears to be making a topic complicated or confusing, obfuscate comes to mind:

to make (something) more difficult to understand

Politicians keep obfuscating the issues.

Their explanations only serve to obfuscate and confuse.

Impenetrable could describe an unclear passage with complicated language, structure, and jargon:

impossible to understand

an impenetrable thicket of verbiage

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I agree with "obfuscate" in situations where there is some information that the writer is trying to hide from the reader. In the example quoted in the question, though, I'm not convinced that there's any actual information underlying this word salad.

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It sounds like you are looking for a word to speak to the technique not just the outcome. I would use either:

Jargon-y

He was very jargon-y in order to avoid admitting he didn't know what he was talking about

or any word ending with -ease based on what terms of art are being used for the effect.

He enjoyed how his business-ease prevented anyone from questioning his qualifications.

Her answer was full of a lot of legal-ease but not a lot of answer.

protected by tchrist Jan 19 '18 at 14:56

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