The Potency of Words: Size Matters.

Size_MattersDid you ever notice that the most famous quotations use only small words?

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

“A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country?”

“Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall!”

Not a big word among them. Now try to imagine if Winston Churchill’s often-repeated rallying cry during World War II – we have nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” – were replaced with “erythrocytes, exertion, lacrimation and perspiration.”  Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?  And who’d remember that?

Most famous quotations are not full of poly-syllabic Latin or French words for a reason – they’ll mark the author as a pompous blowhard, not an effective communicator.

According to author Ammon Shea, “We seem to be under the impression that a small vocabulary is one of those things, like bad teeth or poor manners, that can hold us back.”  That’s why, he says, thousands of books and web sites, many of them commercially successful, promise to absolve us of the sin of a puny vocabulary.

Some of these books, like The Words You Should Know to Sound Smart, claim that learning such words “may even put some money in your pockets.”  That’s just nonsense. If words could put money in my pockets I’d be a writer.

Oh wait. I am a writer.

Anyway, I’m not saying you shouldn’t expand your vocabulary.  It’s always good to add new words to your arsenal, so you have just the right one for the right context. I also find that learning new words makes my life more interesting, and it may even make me more interesting.  OK, maybe not.

Take the word “groak.” It means staring at someone longingly, especially while they eat, perhaps with the hope he or she will give you some food.  It may not reward you in any tangible sense, but you’ve got to admit, it’s a cool word to know.

So, it’s not simply the number of words you know, but how you use each one that’s important.  And it’s not at all about impressing people, improving your professional prospects or building scholarly achievement.

Here’s the point. Whether you’re writing speeches, blogs, ads or white papers, the goal is to communicate as effectively as possible.  You want people to remember the ideas or stories behind the words, not the fact that you used some $10 sesquipedalians (words with many syllables).  Today, marketing folks would call it making your ideas “sticky” — a short and perfectly descriptive word with a new use.

Which brings me, unexpectedly, to Abraham Lincoln. With an Oscar-nominated movie and thousands of books about him, no one in American history is more famous. One reason, among many, is his gifts as a writer.

In the book Abraham Lincoln, The Biography of a Writer, the author Fred Kaplan explains that Lincoln knew how to interweave precise language, concise phrasing and logical tightness with a “personal voice that was sincere, colloquial, anecdotal, and humorous, projecting a persona of dignified but amiable authenticity.”

In other words, Lincoln kept it short – even though Kaplan didn’t.
That’s why we remember Lincoln’s words more than any other president’s. He’s the original American master of making ideas sticky.
“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope on earth.”  See, nice and simple.  And no big words.

15 comments on “The Potency of Words: Size Matters.

  1. Don, good blog. To the point. Clear. Sticky. Thanks.

  2. Really enjoying your blog, Don. My new puppy is groaking at me! I’m not sure I used that new word appropriately!

  3. If you want to see some high-falutin’ BS words thrown around with impunity, just look at the descriptions of what people do, and what job descriptions entail on linkedIn. Now that we don’t make anything anymore, bullshit has become our stock in trade

  4. I usually feel like groaking and lacrimating when I read someone so verbose and monosylabic. Drives me crazy!

  5. Muy bien dicho, mi querido amigo,

  6. What! Are we talking about words again? (said the art director to the writer)! Just kidding, Don. I love words and reading all about them. I’ve always had a distrust of business speak and the business speakers who use big words. A very dear writer friend and mentor from my first advertising job back in the 70’s had a pet peeve about the word “utilize”. I still laugh when I hear someone use it!

  7. Don. Enjoyed the Writing 101 refresher. Words can trigger emotions too. I still gag when I hear ‘paradigm.’

  8. You call Ammon Shea “she.” Isn’t he a guy? Just asking.

  9. “Oh wait, I am a writer.” LOL! Seriously, sometimes there is a need for obfuscation and deviation, particularly when time not content is the main concern.

  10. Your blog perfectly reflects my mantra, “Simple Communications in a Media Cluttered World”.

  11. Don, I agree 98.6 percent. But that’s normothermia. Back-in-the-day-and-night, worked in radio news. Fun but long shrifts. Deadlines the lifeline.

  12. Don,you’re absolutely right! I never realised so clearly before that speeches work best with short words. This despite the fact that I knew all those ringing quotes, and in my writing courses I quote Churchill and point out that all the words are two syllables or less.

    Of course, it is not just a question of length. There are short obscure words and long everyday words.

    Where lesser-known words, and words with complex meanings, really come into their own is in essays, good journalism, novels. And even there, they need to be chosen not to impress the reader but because they are just right for what is being said. When I read a fancy word in the work of a mediocre writer, I ignore it. When I read such a word in the work of a good writer, I take it seriously – I know there is a good reason why this unusual verbal beast has been unleashed.

  13. Hi, just wanted to mention, I loved this blog
    post. It was funny. Keep on posting!

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