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The meaning and origin of the expression: Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things

Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things'?

Quotation - widely attributed to US ex Vice-President Dan Quayle.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things'?

Widely attributed - rightly or wrongly?

Well, US Government representatives in recent years have gone well beyond the call of duty when in stretching the language to breaking point. There's an aptitude there for verbose double-talk that, once we stop grating our teeth, we can only stand back and admire. There are many examples to choose from, but we could hardly do better than Donald Rumsfeld's:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

This tendency toward over-wordiness was lampooned by Alistair Cooke in his Letter from America talks for the BBC. In his acceptance speech for the 'Best Speaker of English' award in 1998, he gave an imagined US Government representative's version of Genesis 1:3:

"The Supreme Being mandated the illumination of the Universe and this directive was enforced forthwith."

As he pointed out, this would compare poorly with the King James Version:

"And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."

Dan Quayle has gained an unfortunate reputation for a certain lack of precision in his public statements. Least there be any doubt about the veracity of those included below, they are taken verbatim from publicly available film of Quayle in action.

"The question is whether we are going to go forward to tomorrow or whether we are going to go past to the back".

"We don't want to go back to tomorrow".

"I think I've made good judgments in the past and I've made good judgments in the future".

"...and the future will be better tomorrow".

That's the context; what about the origin of the 'verbosity...' quotation? The first point is that it has also been attributed to George W. Bush and Al Gore. There are clearly some political shenanigans going on here. Given that at least two of those attributions have to be incorrect, who is to say which? The claim and counter-claim of supporters of the left and right in US politics has muddied the waters rather.

Let's have a look at the facts. As far as the evidence to support this being a quotation from George W. Bush or Al Gore, there isn't any - just unsubstantiated hearsay. That's not to say Dan Quayle was the source.

These all seem to indicate a particular problem Quayle had concerning talking about the past and future, but they are clearly of a similar nature to the supposed 'verbosity...' quotation.

On 30th November 1988, The Los Angles Times printed the following, which it attributed to Dan Quayle, as quoted in an (undated) interview with the Associated Press:

"I also try to discipline myself when I get into a situation... and I'm trying to think of an answer, instead of being verbose, which is a tendency that I have, to be concise. Because verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things."

There's no record of this interview in the Associated Press published archives. That's not to say it didn't happen, just that there's no smoking gun evidence.

So. Plausible? Yes, certainly. Proven? No.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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