Only geniuses and idiots use small words

The Source
Attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci

The Setup
This is one of the endorsements of historical genius on, the website of Nathan Myhrvold’s inventing & patenting, but not making & selling, company. They’ve raised $300 million to think and document.

Hammer Words
Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.

Crushing Force
This is really a counterpoint to the HammerWords thesis.  It’s plain and perfect – a little tap, tap, tap of meaning as the carpenter builds a functional shelf.  I love the idea of Leonardo Da Vinci using the word, “stuff.” (“Ffuts” to him.) The idea is so plainly stated that, if the person in the next cubicle uttered it, we would probably ignore him. Funny how accomplishment lends credence to simple ideas; the ideas are as true when spoken by the unrecognized.

Besides the doing something else, I think there’s another trick:  it’s the doing more of what works. In my experience, we do not do more of what is working well, and instead seek to fix what is broken. Again and again, I see companies that take for granted the things that are going right, and spend all of their energy trying to sell what no one wants.

When it comes to short words, the writers of The Economist strut their smarts.  They printed this hilarious editorial in October, 2004 that I still cannot read without holding my breath and wondering if they will make it to the end without breaking their unwritten rule.

Out with the long

“Short words are best”, said Winston Churchill, “and old words when short are the best of all”

AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are. They do all that you want of them, and they do it well. On a good day, when all is right with the world, they are one more cause for cheer. On a bad day, when the head aches, you can get to grips with them, grasp their drift and take hold of what they mean. And thus they make you want to read on, not turn the page.

Yes, yes, you may say, that all sounds fine. But from time to time good prose needs a change of pace—a burst of speed, a touch of the brake, a slow swoop, a spring, a bound, a stop. Some might say a shaft of light and then a dim glow, some warp as well as weft, both fire and ice, a roll on the drum as much as a toot on the flute. Call it what you will. The point is that to get a range of step, stride and gait means you have to use some long words, some short and some, well, just run of the mill, those whose place is in the mid range. What’s more, though you may find you can write with just short words for a while, in the end don’t you have to give in and reach for one of those terms which, like it or not, is made up of bits, more bits and yet more bits, and that adds up to a word which is long?

Then there is the ban on new words, or at least a puff for the old. Why? Time has moved on. The tongues of yore need help if they are to serve the way we live now. And, come to that, are you sure that the Greeks and Gauls and scribes of Rome were as great as they are cracked up to be? Singe my white head, they could make long words as well as any Hun or Yank or French homme de lettres who plies his trade these days.

Well, yes, some of those old folks’ words were on the long side, but long ones were by no means the rule. And though the tongue in which you read this stole words from here and there, and still does, at the start, if there was one, its words were short. Huh, you may say, those first “words” were no more than grunts. Yet soon they grew to be grunts with a gist, and time has shown that, add to the length of your words as you may, it is hard to beat a good grunt with a good gist.

That is why the short words, when old, are still the tops. Tough as boots or soft as silk, sharp as steel or blunt as toast, there are old, short words to fit each need. You want to make love, have a chat, ask the way, thank your stars, curse your luck or swear, scold and rail? Just pluck an old, short word at will. If you doubt that you will find the one you seek, look at what can be done with not much: “To be or not to be?” “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light,” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.”

It can be done, you see. If you but try, you can write well, and say what you want to say, with short words. And you may not need a lot of them: some words add just length to your prose. That piece of string, the one whose length you all the time have to guess, is no less fine if it is short than if it is long; on its own, its length is not good, not bad, just the sum of its two halves. So it is with words. The worth of each lies in the ends to which it is put. Tie your string well, or ill, and its length counts for naught. Make your point well with short words, and you will have no use for long ones. Make it not so well, and you will be glad that you kept them crisp. So, by God, will those who have to read you.  


Published in: on October 6, 2006 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: