The Potency of Words: Size Matters

I’ll never forget the morning years ago at the Columbus Republic when the habitually agitated news editor wadded up my story about a school board meeting and threw it at me. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant when he demanded that I stop leaning on “50-cent words when nickle ones will do.”

Now, not a day goes by without my recalling that advice as I try to write for communication, not to flaunt a command of erudite vernacular (i.e. big words). Instead of “term papers,” I assign short business memos. And I cringe when I see fancy, 50-cent words. So, when I came across a friend’s blog post today about the beauty of short, precise words, I had to share it here. Take a moment to read the following post by wordsmith Don Heymann:

Did 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, she 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 American will once again be seen as the last best hope on earth.”  See, nice and simple.  And no big words.

Don Heymann has been a writer and communications consultant since 1985, serving a range of corporate and non-profit clients. He is also currently an adjunct instructor at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. 

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