I'm reading On writing Well by William Zinsser. In Chapter Three: Clutter, he takes Alexander Haig for example and says:

Before Haig nobody had thought of saying “at this juncture of maturization” to mean “now.” He told the American people that terrorism could be fought with “meaningful sanctionary teeth” and that intermediate nuclear missiles were “at the vortex of cruciality.” As for any worries that the public might harbor, his message was “leave it to Al,” though what he actually said was: “We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.”

I'm confused about several things in this paragraph:

  1. I can't find "maturization" in the dictionary. Is it the same as "maturation"?
  2. I can't find "sanctionary" in the dictionary, either. What does "meaningful sanctionary teeth" refer to?
  3. About the last sentence, I suppose "We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation" simply means that "the public should not be so worried". But then I don't understand what "I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content" means.

I know those are cluttered language that we should not learn. But I still want to know what they mean. Can anybody explain the ideas for me?

  • 1
    The whole point of Zinsser bringing up Haig's use of the "words" maturization, sanctionary is to give examples of (ignorant?) neologisms, since they're not really words at all (so you wouldn't expect to find them in a dictionary, and you shouldn't use them because people may laugh at your incompetent use of language). Commented Jun 22, 2016 at 13:10

2 Answers 2


I'm not a word expert, but I'm pretty sure those words don't exist. And I think that is the point. Zinsser wants to highlight sloppy, cluttered language by using Haig's comments as examples.

  1. maturization

    We need to examine the suffix -ization in order to attempt to derive some kind of meaning.

    Action, process, or result of doing or making

    So maturization means something like the process or result of becoming mature. However, we already have a word for that!

    The process of becoming mature.

    So yes, I believe "maturization" means maturation. This is an example of "cluttered language" because he didn't have to make up a new word for it. There was already a word (maturation) and it's shorter! Not to mention, "this juncture of maturization" is very clunky and it is not immediately clear that it means "now".

  2. sanctionary

    Again, we look to the suffix for clues*.

    (forming adjectives) of; related to; belonging to

    So sanctionary means something like of or relating to sanctions. I think he is trying to say that sanctions are teeth he can use to attack. Again, this is awkward since sanctionary isn't a word. It can be phrased in nicer ways.

  3. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.

    I'm actually not sure what this is referring to: the public's worries or the missiles. That might be an additional reason why it is cluttered language. I believe it refers to the public's worries since his statement is supposed to imply "Leave it to Al" and he just mentioned it in the previous sentence. If I am correct, then he could have said

    There's nothing to learn by fixating on this.

    In other words, I think he is implying that the public will not ease their fears by "fixating" (dwelling) on the missiles. Instead he dragged out his comment and made it awkward.

    If we wanted to keep the structure of his original statement, then there are several awkward features. I think by

    of a learning curve to be achieved

    he means to say "information to be gained". But a "learning curve" has a completely different meaning. And I do not believe one "achieves" it.

    Further, the last part "in this area of content" is a vestigial tail: we don't need it! If Haig had left it at "in this area", then that would be forgivable since "this area" (I believe) refers to the missiles. So, the public will not ease their worries by learning more about the missiles (this area). However "of content" is useless. It does not add anything meaningful to his statement.

*I did find one definition, here. But lack of documentation regarding this word leads me to believe it isn't common, or a widely used word.


We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.

I read this as meaning that Haig wants the public to stop worrying about this topic because it's too difficult for the public to understand. By saying that there's not "much of a learning curve to be achieved" he's saying that he doesn't think the public can be expected to achieve learning in this complex area.

Now, I would not usually expect to use the verb achieve in conjunction with learning curve. People achieve learning, the curve describes how rapidly they achieve that learning. If Haig is speaking from the point of view of the educator (that is someone explaining nuclear policy to public) then I suppose a skilled educator might be able to explain things in such a way that learning is eased, and the curve is improved. Hence Haig could be sceptical that the topic can be taught effectively. The tone of the remark "public fixation" implies that Haig has a low opinion of the public, and hence perhaps that the difficulties in learning lie with the audience.

Net: he's using over elaborate language; obfuscation in order to appear learned.

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