The Wizards of Zilch

Today's magicians and soothsayers are on bureaucratic payrolls-and they have a language all their own.


In the late afternoon of March 18, 1968, a momentous discovery was made. The place was a crowded conference room on the sixth floor of the State Department Building. The occasion was yet another dull and boring weekly staff meeting under the direction of the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

As usual, each person at the conference table took his or her turn reporting (in bureaucratese) on some problem or development (real or imagined) from the preceding week. And every now and then someone coughed, interdigitated, nodded in approval, made a comment, raised a question, tsked-tsked, or otherwise engaged in some standard meeting ritual or byplay.

As the meeting droned on, James Boren, in his fifth year as a State Department meeting regular, yielded to a gnawing suspicion. Sitting up straight, he carefully surveyed the room. Full-frowns, half-frowns, and other signs of facial fatigue abounded. Eyes, for the most part, were glazed over and some were even closed. Doodles were evident on many of the legal-sized notepads distributed beforehand for the meeting. In fact, nobody seemed to be really listening. And, now that Dr. Boren thought about it, none of the speakers was actually saying anything. Indeed, they were mumbling.

So just as with Archimedes in his bathtub and Newton under an apple tree, a great truth slowly but surely dawned on this observer of the bureaucratic art: these bureaucrats were engaging in dynamic inaction and doing it in style.

Dr. Boren's brow furrowed as he thought hard about the situation. These bureaucrats—and probably bureaucrats everywhere—had learned that innovation and creativity are acceptable as long as they fall within established guidelines, that procedures always take precedence over substance, that red tape can and should be cut as long as it is cut lengthwise, that the wise bureaucrat residuates by wearing clothing that matches the paint or wallpaper in his office, and that nothing is impossible until it is sent to a committee.

Dr. Boren reflected further. What were his colleagues really up to? He concluded they were bent on devitalizing ideas with deft thrusts of yesbuttisms and forthright twiddlisms.

"Eureka," exclaimed Dr. Boren, half-aloud, his eyes ablaze. "I found it! Dynamic inaction! Fantastic! Bureaucratic survival's a matter of fuzzifying and zilchifying. Heads snapped Dr. Boren's way, attendees stared at him, and a hush descended on the room.

"Ahem," said the assistant secretary, sensing something was wrong. He checked his watch, found it was after 5:00, and hurriedly adjourned the meeting.

The rest is history. Within three weeks, Jim Boren decided to dedicate his life to good deeds and tell the world of his newly discovered principles. He founded what is now the International Association of Professional Bureaucrats (INTERNATAPROBU) and soon afterwards laid down, Moses-like, three laws on bureaucracy (which have since taken their place in the annals alongside Parkinson's Laws and the Peter Principle):

(1) When in charge, ponder.
(2) When in trouble, delegate.
(3) When in doubt, mumble.

It's on the latter law that Dr. Boren mainly expounds in his latest learned work, Fuzzify! (McLean, Va.: EPM Publications, 195 pages, $9.95). Mumbling, he explains, has two basic approaches—linear and vertical. He writes:

"Linear mumbling is the transposition of tonal patterns, and it is not distinguishable in the form of words, though a few may be used as linear connectors. When one hears a linear mumbler practicing the art, the initial response is to lean forward as if to catch some meaning that may be embodied in the tonal pattern.

"Of course, the significance of linear mumbling lies not in its meaning but in its expression. Flexible tones, octave changes, exhaliatory projections and orchestrated fade-out can be linked by an occasional word or phrase. The listener then attempts to fill the gaps between the intelligible words that may surface from time to time."

Linear mumbling is often heard during cocktail parties and formal receptions. The tinkling of ice cubes in tall glasses, the little babbling brooks of conversations, and the sizzling of chicken wings and meatballs create the perfect atmosphere of linearity. Some people try but can't hear, others can hear but don't want to, and a number can't understand what they hear anyway. People nod, shake hands, linearize a mumble, and move on to the next nod, shake, and mumble. Politicians who think they recognize a contributor but can't remember the name, and corporate managers who think they have spotted a major stockholder but are not sure, can turn to their spouse and linearize an introduction. "Honey, you remember thumbbolfle, don't you?" Another nod, another shake, another linear mumble.

What about vertical mumbling? Says this inertiated lawgiver:

"Vertical mumbling is characterized by the multisyllabic stringing of words that profundify simplicity and fuzzify intent. The word strings may consist of short bursts of articulate multisyllabattics, or they may be composed of an extended flow of multisyllabic words. Vertical mumbling may be used to avoid confrontation, but it is usually used to indicate organizational wisdom and great expertise in whatever is being discussed. As an avoidance language, a comprehensive vertical mumble may project a slight concurrence before the mumble ends."

As an example par excellence of vertical mumbling and confrontational avoidance, Dr. Boren presents his esteemed Order of the Bird to that Office of Management and Budget underling who came up with "revenue enhancement" as a neat fuzzifier for "tax increase." Beautiful. The good doctor also awards the Order of the Bird to a certain former secretary of state whose official mumblings, linear and vertical, have inspired old-line bureaucrats everywhere. In fact, the ex-secretary has, in effect, given birth to a new star in the mumbling lexicon—haigification.

Fuzzify! is a profundicated volume, a boon to mankind. For while James H. Boren admits that bureaucrats rarely have sex with one another (what they do, they do to the public), the fact is that fuzzification of communications frequently results in welcome delay. The delayers of the world are the heroes of bureaucracy and civilization, says this brilliant social scientist, for they are the ones who keep things from happening and thereby prevent mistakes from being made.

In fact, professional bureaucrats in the corporate and governmental labyrinths would do well to orbitate semantical proclusions and mushify administrative directives to preclude undisambiguated oopsifications, thrashified judicialities, and variegated idiotoxic programs.

Dr. Peterson is the director of the Center for Economic Education and the Scott L. Probasco Jr. Professor of Free Enterprise at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.


fuzzify, v. To present information in a manner that seems clear and precise but which is characterized by optimal adjustivity of interpretation.

haigification, n. Involuted formulation or explanation of foreign or other policies in superficially meaningful but really incomprehensible terms.

inertiation, n. Implementation of a policy or program in such a way as to assure slow initiative and low-level performance on a sustained basis.

interdigitate, v. To interface in a rhythmic pattern the digital elements of the hands in a professional manner. No professional bureaucrat ever interdigitates with a spacial gap greater than one inch.

multisyllabattic, a. Refers to forceful interfacing of multisyllabic words with the batting of constituent syllables within a single word.

Parkinson's Laws, n. (1) Work expands to fill the time available; (2) Expenses rise to meet income.

Peter Principle, n. In a hierarchy everyone rises to his level of incompetence.

profundicate/profundify, v. To denote use of thesauric and other wordational techniques to make simple ideas seem more profound. Graduates of agricultural institutions tend to use profundicate, while graduates of Ivy League institutions tend to use profundify.

residuate, v. To burrow into a fixed, immovable position while maintaining a very low profile. Needed during changes of administration or management.

twiddlisms, n. Short-radius referrals of memorandum, document, report or other written material so as to orbitate time required for execution.

yesbuttism, n. Agreement with policy enunciation but negated with a drawn-out "yes" and punctuated with a curt "but."

zilchify, v. To convert or reduce policy, directive, memo, etc., from a level of value to a level of absolute nothingness.