[ fed-er-uh-leez, -lees ]
/ ˌfɛd ər əˈliz, -ˈlis /
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noun (often initial capital letter)

awkward, evasive, or pretentious prose said to characterize the publications and correspondence of U.S. federal bureaus.



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Origin of federalese

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2021


What does federalese mean?

Federalese is a slang term for the confusing, evasive, or awkward language said to be used in communications by federal government agencies in the United States.

In the U.S., the federal government is the government on the national level, as opposed to state or local government. Federalese is often capitalized as if it were an official language. It is always used negatively, especially to complain about or make fun of such language.

Example: With all the Federalese on these tax forms, it’s amazing anyone can fill them out correctly.

Where does federalese come from?

The first records of federalese come from the 1940s. The similar term legalese (referring to language containing an excessive amount of legal terminology or jargon) has been in use since at least the 1910s. Both terms are formed with the suffix -ese, which is used in the names of actual languages, such as Chinese and Portuguese.

In the 1948 satirical work Federal Prose, writers James R. Masterson and Wendell Brooks mocked government-style communications by translating the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” into federalese: “Undue multiplicity of personnel assigned either concurrently or consecutively to a single function involves deterioration of quality in the resultant product as compared with the product of the labor of an exact sufficiency of personnel.”

Both federalese and legalese are typically used in a humorous (or contemptuous) way to mock language that’s seen as being obfuscatory, which is just a fancy way of saying that it’s hiding something or making it unclear, especially on purpose. People hate federalese because they see it as unnecessarily complicated—like the opposite of saying something in plain language.

The U.S. federal government (which is known for its bureaucracy and red tape) is associated with confusing language because of its use of legal language in laws, regulations, documents, and forms, such as those required for paying taxes. Remember, legal language is not written with the goal of being clear to the average person. Instead, it is written using precise language to avoid the possibility of alternate or contradictory interpretations or loopholes. Of course, sometimes this goes too far, and some people have called for the government to cut down on federalese and write documents in plain language that the average person can understand.

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What are some words that share a root or word element with federalese?

What are some words that often get used in discussing federalese?

How is federalese used in real life?

Federalese is always used in a way that’s critical of unclear government language. People use it humorously or in frustration, perhaps depending on how confusing the form is that they’re trying to fill out.


Try using federalese!

Which of the following terms describes federalese?

A. confusing
B. obfuscatory
C. overly complicated
D. all of the above

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