November 13, 2012
Fire hydrants never understand. Photo: ohhector
“I wonder now what Ernest Hemingway’s dictionary looked like, since he got along so well with dinky words that everybody can spell and truly understand.” – Kurt Vonnegut, 1967
A friend once quoted someone he looked up to as saying “profanity is an ignorant mind trying to express itself boldly.”
I replied that I don’t mind profanity as long as it quickens conversation with sensible economy of words, so that I quickly know exactly how the person I’m talking to feels. For example, I can understand “F*** no” faster than “at this particular juncture the eventualities that could ensue seem to not include the likelihood of my acquiescence to…”
And just saying ‘no’ would be even more frugal. I’d be able to ask “why not?” after hearing only a word.
In “On Writing Well” , Yale Professor William Zinsser asks his students to beware of the long word that’s no better than the short word. He gives examples of weighty words intended to impress that only tire the reader who enjoys gazing the page easily. For example:
“Implement” could be replaced with “do”.
“Referred to as” could be replaced with “called”.
“Remainder” could be replaced with “rest”.
The use of simple words is the difference between “help a lot of people” and “attempt to facilitate numerous individuals with assistance”.
The first sounds like a human speaking and the second sounds like a press release.
If you’ve ever read a legal notice from a lawyer you know what it’s like to think someone sounds very intelligent while having no idea what they’re saying. Intimidating intelligent speak is useful for scaring defendants into settling out of court but it doesn’t make anything easy to understand.
When my brother was ten he asked my Dad, a systems engineer, for help with home work and thirty minutes later asked “don’t take this the wrong way Dad, but has anyone ever fallen asleep while you’re talking?”
Profanity isn’t appropriate for all situations but neither is using a word like “inclement” to describe bad weather to a ten year old.
If we want people to understand us, agree with us or spread our message to others, what we say has to be said in a language they understand. Without this we leave people disinterested, sometimes enough to dismiss us with an “F off”.