eternal bureaucratese: the long history bureaucratic writing

Common characteristics of bureaucratic texts:

  1. Abstract — Job titles indicating organizational position (major, manager) replace job titles associated with doing a specific job (scribe, librarian).
  2. Vague —  Contributions, super-statutory food-money, and “the usual” are used as names for taxes and bribes.
  3. Repetitive — Virtually identical documents newly appear over time.
  4. Prolix — A decree denouncing tomb desecration begins: “It was my duty, after considering with myself, to restore the ancient custom [about funerals]…. For when they considered the matter, the men of old, who made wise laws, believed that there was the greatest possible difference between life and death….the sun is the cause of day and night … by his departure and arrival.”
  5. Passive — Nouns replace verbs (“our thinking is” replaces “we think”).  Passive verbs replace active verbs (“it was determined” replaces “the Council ruled”).
  6. Assuring — Colonial levies are called “happy shipments”; the army is called “our ever-victorious soldiers”.
  7. Obsequious — “by his mere passing-by, by the mere efficacity of his high dignity, recalled our city…to splendor.”

All the examples above are from fourth-century Roman bureaucratese.[*]  Bureaucratic language is as universal and enduring as humans’ social nature. Enjoy the Carnival of Bureaucrats!

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[*] See MacMullen, Ramsay. 1962. “Fourth-Century Bureaucratese,” Traditio 18: 364-78.

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