Almost 50 years ago Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, one of the greatest newspaper columnists of the 20th century, wrote a column bemoaning the misuse of the word “clout” by Washington journalists.
He cited a piece by David Broder, the Washington Post’s lead political writer, as an example. Broder was touting the U.S. attorney in Chicago as having a having a bright political future because he had established himself as Mr. Clean by sending prominent Illinois politicians of both parties to prison.
In his piece, Broder said U.S. Attorney James R. Thompson’s “sudden fame and reputation as the most feared wielder of that special Chicago commodity called ‘clout’ rests on his work in the field of public corruption.”
Royko wrote about clout at Chicago City Hall so often that he sometimes used it as a verb and expanded the word by using it not only as a certain sort of power, but also as the person who had that power. He spanked Broder with examples.
“Nah, I don’t need a building permit — I got clout in City Hall.”
“Hey, Charlie, I see you made foreman. Who’s clouting for you?”
“Ever since my clout died, they’ve been making me work a full eight hours. I’ve never worked an eight-hour week before.”
“Clout is used to circumvent the law, not to enforce it. It is used to bend rules, not follow them,” Royko wrote. “That is why Thompson can be considered as anti-clout.”
That column was brought to mind Sunday when I read Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times. Dowd is a wonderful writer, somewhat in the Royko tradition. She has the same tough-guy ability to use language as bipartisan jabs, hooks and roundhouses. She has pummeled Bill and Hillary Clinton as mercilessly as she has Donald Trump.
Like Royko, Dowd has total command of the language, although his style was fit for a Chicago tabloid while hers is of a more literary hue apt for the New York Times.
Her Sunday column was a fine example, inspired by the surprising fact that at the age of 70 she is pursuing a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University.
Her first class was on the famously difficult novel Ulysses by Irish literary giant James Joyce. She soon found herself comparing the inscrutability of Joyce’s prose with that of the Washington politicians she has been dissecting for decades. Her column was headlined: “D.C. and Joyce — Both Incomprehensible.”
Dowd cited some D.C. examples: “Donald Trump’s upside-down utterances. Kevin McCarthy’s demented backtracking. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s inanity, accusing Nancy Pelosi of siccing her ‘gazpacho police’ on lawmakers.”
Then she stumbled. She tripped over a word that— just as “clout” was linked to Chicago — is linked to San Antonio. What’s more, her misuse of the word was similar to Broder’s.
The word is “gobbledygook.” Its link to San Antonio is that it was coined by the late San Antonio Mayor Maury Maverick Sr. Here is how Dowd used it:
“This era of gobbledygook has also featured the Republican National Committee issuing a resolution that the barbaric attack on the Capitol was ‘legitimate political discourse.’”
Before I get to the issue of why that is such an errant use of a great word, let me introduce some of you to the man responsible for it, and his family’s etymological reputation.
Maury Maverick was the grandson of Sam Maverick, who escaped death at the Alamo because he had been sent to attend the convention that was busily writing a declaration of independence from Mexico while the war to attain it was already underway.
Hailing from South Carolina, Sam Maverick set out to Texas and became a very successful land speculator in and around San Antonio and two-time mayor of the budding town.
For the rest of this column I am indebted to San Antonio historian Lewis F. Fisher for the chapter on “gobbledygook” in his delightful book, Maverick: The American Name that Became a Legend.
Maverick acquired some cattle as part of his purchase of a farm on Matagorda Island. He put the cattle into the care of an enslaved 19-year-old, who apparently was not rigorous about branding them. Unbranded cattle became “mavericks,” and thus was born the word that has come to connote a sturdy independence from societal or professional norms. Fisher’s research found the farmer to be a former pirate with Jean Lafitte.
By the time Maury Maverick Sr. became San Antonio’s mayor in 1940 — exactly 100 years to the day after his grandfather entered his first term in that office — he had already become a national figure as a congressman. As a leading soldier for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, he was the subject of 16 pieces in the New York Times during his first year in Congress.
An autobiography he published in 1937, A Maverick American, was a bestseller. In it he noted two other ancestors of etymological significance. One was the first Sam Maverick, who came from England to the Boston area in the mid-17th century.
Maury gave old Sam credit for naming New York when he was a member of a commission appointed by King Charles II to take possession of “New Amsterdam” from the Dutch. If Sam Maverick did name the city, it may have been more political than inventive. The Duke of York was the brother of the king and would later become King James II.
In his book Maury Maverick also credited an ancestor of his great grandmother, a Virginia planter and judge named Charles Lynch, with giving us that fearful term through his harsh and perhaps premature sentencing of Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. That account is not undisputed.
Maury wouldn’t come up with the term “gobbledygook” until after his first mayoral term ended in defeat and FDR in 1944 appointed him chairman and general manager of the Smaller War Plants Corporation, whose task was to encourage the participation of smaller businesses in the war effort.
Maverick quickly became annoyed with bureaucratic memos that were long on verbiage and short on message. He wrote a one-page memo with the subject line: “Lengthy Memoranda and Gobbledygook Language.”
It began: “Memoranda should be as short as clearness will allow. The Naval officer who wired ‘Sighted Sub — Sank Same’ told the whole story.”
After forbidding “gobbledygook language” such as “finalizing” and “pointing up” it concluded: “Anyone using the words ‘activation’ or ‘implementation’ will be shot.”
In today’s language, the memo went viral. The Washington Post did a laudatory story the next day. Hundreds of newspapers around the nation ran pieces on it. The New York Times ran a cartoon about it. The word became so popular that it still does good work today.
Maverick offered a possible explanation of how he came up with the word: “Perhaps I was thinking of the old bearded turkey gobbler back in Texas who was always gobbledygobbling and strutting with ridiculous pomposity. At the end of his gobble there was a sort of gook.”
According to historian Fisher, Maverick’s hedging in that quote and others led some lexicographers to “smell a rat.” Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, author and journalism professor Ben Yagoda described Maverick’s account as “at best, incomplete, as gobbledygoo had a long-established meaning at that time” — as a prostitute’s engaging in oral sex. Fisher notes that Maverick, a World War I war hero, was no stranger to salty language.
Whatever Maverick’s inspiration, “gobbledygook” is not a synonym for inscrutable language. Nor is it a form of outrageous propaganda such as labeling the Jan. 6 riot as “legitimate political discourse.”
It is much more specific, a label for pompously timid bureaucratic language — the sort of writing of which Maureen Dowd is never guilty. I look forward to her correction.
This column has been updated to clarify that Sam Maverick acquired cattle as part of a purchase of land on Matagorda Island.