Editorial: Humpty Dumpty Language at City Hall

By Becky O’Malley
Friday July 28, 2006

There ought to be a name for that pervasive feature of modern life, wherein whatever something’s called tells you what it’s not. Case in point: “Drug-Free Zone.” What that actually tells you is “we still have a drug problem around here, although we’re working on it.” Naming developments is a well-known example: the Gaia Building has no Gaia bookstore; “Library Gardens” looks to be arid square blocks of wall-to-wall condos, though a small garden might eventually materialize. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is trying with very little help to keep the “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act” meaning what its name says, in view of Bush and the Congressionals (both D and R) singing a different song as they bestow more nukes on India. And of course there’s the now-classic “Healthy Forests” law, aimed at getting rid of more trees.  

Back in the golden days of national Democratic administrations, there used to be something called consumer protection, a term which actually meant what it said. It incorporated such concepts as Truth in Lending and Truth in Packaging, both of which were used to describe legislation which had some teeth in it, protecting the hapless consumer from being sold a bill of goods for worthless products. Much of that legislation has now disappeared.  

There’s been a recent flap over misuse of the term “organic” as applied to food (and no, I don’t want to hear what it means when used in chemistry, so don’t even think about writing that letter.) The federal administration has led the drive to cloud the waters, proposing ever-weaker definitions that outrage the true organic farmers and their customers.  

Even in Berkeley (or sadly, perhaps especially in Berkeley) the old idea of truth-in-packaging has lost significant ground. The developer-dominated city staff and their willing accomplices on the city council conceal their real objectives in the feel-good titles they give their proposals. So, for example, “Off-street parking in Required Yards on Residential Lots,” on last Tuesday’s City Council agenda, achieved its goal of turning yards into parking lots by changing the definition of “yard.” 

The “Word Spy” website calls the phenomenon “Humpty Dumpty language,” defined as “an idiosyncratic or eccentric use of language in which the meaning of particular words is determined by the speaker.” The name derives from this passage in “Through the Looking-Glass”: 


“There’s glory for you!” 

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ “Alice said. 

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’” 

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected. 

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” 

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty. “which is to be master—that’s all.” 


The Berkeley City Council’s pro-developer majority is now engaged in one of its typical language-bending exercises. Last minute revelations of significant drafting errors forced them to temporarily abandon their effort to ram through a new ordinance with the Humpty-Dumpty title of “Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.” That’s also the name of the existing ordinance, which actually was designed in the innocent past by a group of public-spirited citizens to do what it says: preserve landmarks. The proposed new version, which had been voted in at two successive “first readings” before it succumbed this week to legal flaws, should more properly be titled the “Landmarks Demolition Ordinance,” since its true purpose is to speed up land-clearing for developers.  

The battleground du jour now shifts to whether the Berkeley city attorney’s office will succeed in the HumptyDumptyfication of the legally required ballot description and analysis of the November citizen-sponsored initiative which aims to re-enact the current LPO with small updates to conform to new state laws. The language is being written by Assistant City Attorney Zac Cowan. 

Cowan has been working as a city staffer on the attempt to defang the LPO from the beginning. Some might see that assignment as a conflict of interest, since Cowan is also vice-president and long-time board member of Greenbelt Alliance, which actively promotes its Dumpty version of “Smart Growth” by endorsing infill development projects like those proposed for Berkeley.  

Cowan’s initial draft of the city attorney’s analysis for the November ballot looks like disingenuous gobbledygook at first glance, with what seem to be serious errors of fact. There’s not time or space to analyze it here, and it might change anyhow. The council as of this writing is scheduled to vote to adopt whatever language he ends up with in a special meeting in the City Council chambers next Tuesday, Aug. 1, probably at 5 p.m., though the time was not posted on the city calendar at press time.  

Proponents of the initiative are undoubtedly arguing with Cowan over his choice of language as this is being written, but since Mayor Bates is thought to have the votes in his pocket they probably won’t get very far. Interested citizens should nonetheless come to the public comment period which by law precedes the meeting to make their views known. City Councilmembers in theory still have a chance to show their commitment to old-fashioned truth-in-packaging if they choose. If they don’t have enough backbone to do so, initiative supporters have the option of taking deceptive ballot language to court.