Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Word Up Wednesday: Obfuscation

This week's Word Up is one I got off the back of one of my husband's shirts. It's a shirt for a local softball team and the back says "Champions" and then the next line says "Obfuscators." I could never figure out whether the team were champions as a result of, or despite, being obfuscators. And anyway, shouldn't it be "Champion obfuscators"? But most of all, what does obfuscator mean? And in what way is a men's softball team using obfuscation to win? Well, that had the making of a Word Up if any word ever did.

Unfortunately my husband didn't play on the softball team; his brother-in-law gave him the shirt for some man-reason that I don't fully comprehend. But anyway, the term obfuscation turns out to be great. It means "the concealment of intended meaning in communication, making communication confusing, intentionally ambiguous, and more difficult to interpret."


Wikipedia claims that doctors are accused of obfuscation often, "using jargon to conceal unpleasant facts from the patient." The mean girl in me thinks that the legal profession enjoys obfuscation in its communications, mostly so that those of us not trained in law will not understand things and therefore need legal interpretation (sorry, Carrie, sorry). I also suspect that the academic crowd fond of rhetoric enjoys it because you can writer longer papers and sound more snooty when you use big obfuscating words rather than simple language, but that's just me having read way too many of those types of papers in grad school, and resenting each one of them.

Can you think of any examples where obfuscation in writing is appropriate, and can you think of any examples where you've seen it (appropriate or not)?


Amber Tidd Murphy said...

I am pretty sure hubs thinks I'm guilty of obfuscation every time he asks me a question like, "What's wrong?"


Good word! I didn't know it before today.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

"That we can't tell whether Sarah's obfuscation is deliberate," said Katie, "is perhaps the most disturbing part."


On that note, I work in D.C. so am well-acquainted with the word.

In writing, I'm a little unclear as to what would be considered obfuscation. For example, if it's a book about sailors and the sailors talk to each other using sailing jargon that 95% of readers don't get (and yet by doing so they make the dialogue more authentic), is that obfuscation?

In a literary short story, if the fact that Homer and Marge's marriage is about to fall apart due to Homer's adultery is hinted at but never stated, is that obfuscation?

If I pick up a William Faulkner book and have no idea what the heck he's talking about for the first 50 pages, is that obfuscation?

If you can't figure out the intent of this post or whether I have a point, is that obfuscation (or just my laziness)? Ha-ha x 2.

Tina Lynn said...

That word flew over my head so fast I didn't even see which way it went. Seriously, by the time I turned my head it was gone.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Amber, you're right on.

Lt. - the quote from the Sarah Palin article is also right on. I think I read that yesterday in fact. However in her case I'm unsure whether her obfuscation is deliberate given her inteligence. Just saying.
Your sailor example is correct, but on the part of the writer, and serves no purpose to obfuscate the reader unless the writer is full of himself and wants to do so in order to make himself/herself seem like an expert in sailor jargon. Better that the sailors in the story use jargon on non-sailors in the story and thus keep non-sailors out of their business. (Which is treasure-hunting, obviously.)

In your example about Homer and Marge, no that is not obfuscation. With William Falkner, yes, that is obfuscation possibly because Falkner thought highly of himself and his words (but that is not an accusation. I've never read Falkner. I have um, other things to do.)

Regarding the intent of your comment, yeah that's just laziness :)

Tina...I think obfuscation obfuscated you!


CKHB said...

1) I am so NOT surprised that the photo you used is of Boston signage.
2) I always wanted the t-shirt that said "Eschew Obfuscation".
3) I'm not offended... I hate that kind of lawyer, too! Of course, I'm not in active practice right now, so what does that tell you? (But seriously, I promise you that large amounts of legalese are actually terms of art intended to make things CLEARER by having precise language dedicated to single meanings rather than having to worry what the definition of "IS" is. Heh.)
4) Obfuscation, sadly, is often in the eye of the beholder. I was shocked to discover that someone I was working with had no idea what the short story "Hills Like White Elephants" was about. He thought that Hemingway's choices to leave certain story elements unsaid was just flat-out confusing. And then there's The DaVinci Code, which many people obviously enjoyed, but I thought it could have benefited from much MORE obfuscation, so that I wouldn't have been bored out of my mind, figuring out clues four chapters before the hero did.

Sierra Godfrey said...

LOL, Carrie.

Your point about obfuscation being in the eye of the beholder is well made and taken. Both your examples are excellent. And thanks for clearing up the reason for legalese.

Travener said...

Deliberate obfuscation can be an effective tool in building drama, mystery, etc., though you can overdo it, as Joyce did to the nth degree in Finnegan's Wake.

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