The Potency of Words. Size Matters.

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.

Nevertheless, thousands of books and web sites, many of them commercially successful, promise to absolve us of the sin of a puny vocabulary. And 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.

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. And learning new words can be fun.

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.

Ultimately, it’s not simply the number of words you know, but how you use each one that’s important.  Using colorful, descriptive words almost always makes writing more compelling. It’s not about impressing people, improving your professional prospects or building scholarly achievement.

So whether you’re writing speeches, blogs, ads or white papers, the goal is to communicate as effectively as possible – making your ideas “sticky.”  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).

Which brings me, unexpectedly, to Abraham Lincoln. 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. “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.

Don Heymann

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