What is Bureaucratese?

bureaucrats with boxes
(Colin Hawkins/Getty Images)

Bureaucratese is an informal term for obscure speech or writing that is typically characterized by verbosity, euphemisms, jargon, and buzzwords. Also known as officialese, corporate-speak, and government-speak. Contrast with plain English.

Diane Halpern defines bureaucratese as "the use of formal, stilted language that is unfamiliar to people who lack special training." Often, she says, the same information "can be expressed better with simpler terms" (Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 2014). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Editing Exercises

Examples and Observations

  • "Civil Service language: 'Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.' Translation: 'You are lying.'"
    (Sir Humphrey Appleby, Yes, Minister. BBC Television, 1986)
  • "[T]he CoE's Dick Marty dropped a bombshell this week when he suggested that European governments may have been secretly cooperating with the US in its practice of kidnapping terrorist suspects--'extraordinary rendition'--in American bureaucratese."
    (Ian Black, "Tortuous Distinctions." The Guardian [UK], Dec. 16, 2005)
  • "Finally, in pursuit of the above, it is also a shrewd moment to take advantage of a more open stance in shaping policy priorities and implementation mechanisms. . . . Open policymaking, therefore, is a naturally structural corollary to behaviour change on the agenda of modernising government and driving effective ­public policy.”
    (Government Equalities Office, quoted by John Preston in "Speak Plainly: Are We Losing the War Against Jargon?" The Daily Telegraph [UK], March 28, 2014)

Buzzwords in Bureaucratese

  • "Few would contest that some business jargon, or 'Offlish' as it has been dubbed, can be both infuriating and ridiculous. . . . Beyond the familiar blue-sky or joined-up thinking, blamestorming, and downsizing, have come and gone an enervating line of words and idioms which are held up as key indicators not of success, but of a failed attempt to impress. Yet it is not a few company prospectuses that will boast of strategic partnerships, core competencies, business-process outsourcing (BPO), driving achievement tools, improving system outcomes, creating capability, managing across the matrix, and of blueprints or routemaps for (a tautological) future progress."
    (Susie Dent, The Language Report: English on the Move, 2000-2007. Oxford University Press, 2007)

Corporate Speak

  • "Corporate speak is more than jargon. While such terms as synergy, incentivise and leveraging can be difficult to grasp, there's nothing especially hard about wow factor, low-hanging fruit or (at least to cricket fans) close of play. But these phrases nonetheless attract criticism. The charge is that, even though they are simple, they have lost their meaning through overuse. They have become automatic reactions, verbal tics, a replacement for intelligent thinking. In short, they have become inappropriately used clichés."
    (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Banking Jargon

  • "Last week, Barclays announced that Rich Ricci, the head of the corporate investment bank, would be 'retiring'--itself something of a euphemism. And the statement by Antony Jenkins, the bank’s chief executive was positively replete with management waffle: 'I want to de-layer the organisation--creating a closer day-to-day relationship and clearer line of sight for myself into the business. We will organise our activity into more clearly delineated client-focused product sets.'
    "Quite frankly, your guess is as good as ours on that one.
    "In February, when Jenkins appeared in front of the UK’s Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, Baroness Susan Kramer, exasperated by all the references to balanced scorecards, metrics, and diversity asked the Barclays boss to stop using management jargon.
    "Jenkins apologised, saying: 'That, unfortunately, may be the way I speak.'"
    (Ben Wright, "Time to 'Demise' Ridiculous Banking Double-Speak." Financial News [UK], April 23, 2013)

Bond Market Terminology

  • "[L]anguage served a different purpose inside the bond market than it did in the outside world. Bond market terminology was designed less to convey meaning than to bewilder outsiders. Overpriced bonds were not 'expensive'; overpriced bonds were 'rich,' which almost made them sound like something you should buy. The floors of sub-prime mortgage bonds were not called floors--or anything else that might lead the bond buyer to form any sort of concrete image in his mind--but tranches. The bottom tranche--the risky ground floor--was not called the ground floor but the mezzanine, or the mezz, which made it sound less like a dangerous investment and more like a highly prized seat in a domed stadium."
    (Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. W.W. Norton, 2010)

A Notice to Householders

  • "The matters with which bureaucrats deal are mostly mundane and can be fully described and discussed in sixth-grade English. In order to augment their self-image, therefore, bureaucrats create synonyms for existing vocabulary using a Graeco-Latinate lexicon, seeking to obfuscate the commonplace and endow it with gravity; this achieves a double-whammy by mystifying and intimidating the clientele. A notice to householders, from the City of Fitzroy in Melbourne, Australia, read:
    Refuse and rubbish shall not be collected from the site or receptacles thereon before the hour of 8:00am or after the hour of 6:00pm any day. . . .
    Householders would probably have found it easier to understand the more colloquial We will collect your garbage between 8:00am and 6:00pm."
    (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What is Bureaucratese?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). What is Bureaucratese? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Bureaucratese?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-bureaucratese-1689186 (accessed March 29, 2023).