Short words are better than long words

 

George Orwell typing typewriter

Every writer (of any kind) really needs to read George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Therein you will find at least 40% of what you ever need to know about the principles of good writing, especially nonfiction writing.

Orwell’s rules of thumb are timeless and they include:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

Winston Churchill, who also knew a thing or two about good writing, is quoted as saying:

Broadly speaking, short words are best, and old words when short are best of all.

In a similar vein, Orwell advised:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Fortunately for him, Orwell lived before the time of hideous corporate jargon and marketing buzzwords, such as “client-centric,” “leverage,” “touchpoint,” and “redundancy offer,” but none of those linguistic outrages would survive the Orwellian pruning shears.

There is also the annoying phenomenon of hijacking perfectly good words and phrases for other purposes. For example, I heard the term “fire drill” a lot when working in corporate America. Apparently, it refers to a situation where you need to drop everything and work overtime to prevent a colossal f*ck-up from escalating into a DEFCON 1 emergency. I didn’t know this at first, so I thought people were talking about literal fire drills, which as you can imagine was confusing.

Americans also have a bad habit of misusing nouns as verbs, like “impact,” and misusing verbs as nouns, like “build.” Perhaps the most awful example of this is the use of the verb “ask” as a noun, as in: “That’s a big ask.” No, that’s a big request. There is no such thing as “an ask.” The English language is fluid but that doesn’t entitle you to communicate like you were raised by wolves.

“Ask,” by the way, is an exception to Orwell’s rule about using short words instead of long ones. In this case, the better and more correct word is longer. So the rules should be seen as general guidelines rather than ironclad dogma.

Likewise, there are many cases where it is justified to sprinkle longer or “fancier” synonyms throughout the text in order to create variety and avoid monotony. For example, rather than use the verb “fired” seven times in an article – as in the company fired him – I might substitute the words “dismissed” or “sacked” or “gave him the pink slip” for some of those usages. Remember, though, that readability is the key. I would tend to use the shorter word first, and move on to longer or more elaborate synonyms only later and only if I felt that repeating the original word would be too boring.

The above exceptions to the rule would be my only quibble with this article in Lifehacker, which is otherwise quite correct, IMHO:

So sometimes we write stuff that we’d never say aloud. We use a complicated or “smart-sounding” word when a simpler word would work better. New York Times editor Dan Saltzstein listed some great examples on Twitter. They pop up in news media, but also in “business speak.” If you’re trying to write effectively, watch out for these:

Dear editors:
Closed > shuttered
Restaurant > eatery
Begin > commence
Open > launch
Use > utilize
(What am I missing?)
— Dan Saltzstein (@dansaltzstein) December 23, 2018

There are many more useful examples in the article, so it’s worth checking out.

Promoted to customer

Not sure if the specific language of this tweet was Verizon’s idea or CNBC’s:

Verizen layoff tweet CNBC

The article uses the much more sensible term “buyout offer.”

Being fired or laid off is one of those unpleasant aspects of modren life that has spawned a plethora of Orwellian euphemisms to mask the brutal underlying reality.

I think it was from the BBC series The Office that I learned the startling British euphemism “redundancy offer.”

The Office David Brent

We don’t need no Anglicisms

Takanawa Gateway station

Tokyo denizens push back against an attempt by the operator of the city’s most important railway line to saddle them with an unwanted English word:

A growing number of people say they dislike the name of a new station in Tokyo, set to be called Takanawa Gateway, and are calling for the station’s name to be changed after its recent announcement by railway operator East Japan Railway Co.

The name of the station, set to open on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line in 2020, was chosen from a list of suggested names submitted by and voted on by the public. That list was compiled from about 64,000 entries, more than 13,000 of which were unique.

After the votes were gathered, the entries were published according to the number of votes they had received. Takanawa Gateway, with 36 votes, was ranked 130th on the list. For comparison, Takanawa — the entry that came in first place — received 8,398 votes and Shibaura, in second place, got 4,265 votes, according to JR East. The final decision has led many to question why the company asked for recommendations at all.

A petition created Friday by columnist Mineko Nomachi, titled “Please change the name Takanawa Gateway,” had already garnered more than 12,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

“Gateway” is hard for many Japanese to pronounce. It requires five syllables: “ge-e-to-we-i.”

Proving that bureaucracy is stupid, the company is pushing back against the public:

JR East does not intend to rename the train station, according to Yusuke Yamawaki from the firm’s public relations department, adding that they did not decide on the name merely by the number of votes it received.

One detail from the story struck me:

“Not only is the name Takanawa Gateway so long it will lead to clerical mistakes, it doesn’t suit the region or the Yamanote Line, and therefore should be changed,” Nomachi wrote on the petition’s homepage. “People feel that it’s outdated to stick foreign words onto the end of names for no reason.”

If it’s true that the Japanese are losing their enthusiasm for “Engrish,” that would be another micro-indicator that globalization has shifted into reverse gear.

‘Member when a lot of people confidently believed that national identity was weakening due to the free flow of information, people, money and goods across borders? I ‘member that. Good times.

Then again:

With the government set to create a new immigration agency in April, some officials in Tokyo are already envisioning a day where it could be further upgraded into a ministry.

As the country looks to bring in more foreign workers to address a severe labor shortage, the Immigration Bureau will next year become an agency under the Justice Ministry, following the approval of a law by the Diet on Saturday. […]

For now, there is concern about potential understaffing at the new immigration agency. The government expects some 340,000 people will obtain a new visa for lower-skilled workers in the first five years.

Oh, and speaking of trains in Japan, this is cool:

The most isolated railway station in Western Japan, Tsubojiri station, 坪尻駅, on Shikoku Island. Located at the bottom of a deep mountain valley, there is no road to access this, only a steep mountain footpath. Very beautiful. #TrainTwitter

Tsubojiri station Japan

Idiocracy and other new English words

Idiocracy Costco

Idiocracy (the movie)

The English language, if the Oxford English Dictionary is to be believed, has over 600,000 words and gains several thousand new words every year. New words enter the OED only if there is evidence of widespread use for a significant period of time (typically, at least a decade), so the quarterly updates to the dictionary offer an interesting glimpse into how our collective consciousness is expanding and mutating. I was amused, for example, to discover that the following words were recently added to the dictionary:

  • apocalyptician, n.
  • apocalypticist, n.
  • Archie Bunker, n.
  • areligious, adj.
  • butthurt, adj.
  • Chan, n.
  • douchebaggery, n.
  • douchey, adj.
  • Dunbar number, n.
  • idiocracy, n.2
  • Indiana Jones, n.
  • Kansas, n. [Ed: ??]
  • Kubrickian, adj.
  • lumbersexual, adj. and n.
  • Lynchian, adj.
  • Mrs Robinson, n.
  • Nollywood, n.
  • nothingburger, n. and adj.
  • prepper, n.3
  • Scorsesean, adj.
  • Spielbergian, adj.
  • Tarantinoesque, adj.
  • Tarkovskian, adj.
  • verbalness, n.
  • yarg, n. [Ed: This appears to refer to either “an ironic invocation of the pirate spirit by rule-bound individuals frustrated by the setbacks of civilized life” or a semi-hard cheese made in Cornwall]

Word War III

Entertaining, is it not?

Credit where credit is due – this is a pretty decent verbal hand grenade lobbed by the Supreme Leader, although it lacks the potency of the linguistic MOAB that is “mentally deranged dotard,” not to mention the city-flattening power of the semantic ICBM that is “Little Rocket Man”:

North Korea’s state-run media has described US President Donald Trump’s tweet about having a bigger nuclear button than leader Kim Jong-un’s is the “spasm of a lunatic”.

Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party newspaper, lashed out at Trump in a commentary on Tuesday that took issue with the US commander in chief’s January 3 tweet that “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

A summary of the commentary by North Korea’s official news agency described the tweet as “the spasm of a lunatic.”

“The spasm of Trump in the new year reflects the desperate mental state of a loser who failed to check the vigorous advance of the army and people of the DPRK,” the Rodong Sinmun commentary said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “He is making (a) bluff only to be diagnosed as a psychopath.”

I must say, I find this verbal pissing contest… strangely entertaining. And it’s hard not to imagine the Great Successor and the Sun of the 21st Century suppressing a smirk as he launches his latest verbal fusillade. Hopefully his next insult doesn’t involve an actual nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Blast from the past: Loanwords

Originally posted June 16, 2013

Teaching business English to Japanese students in Shanghai has reminded me of one thing that I miss about South Korea, where I used to live: English loanwords. A loanword is a word from one language that gets adopted by another language. Modern-day Korean is littered with English loanwords, which often makes for curious listening; a foreigner who doesn’t understand Korean, listening to a Korean conversation, will hear a stream of completely unintelligible speech punctuated now and then by strangely pronounced English words such as “shopping” or “condition.”

As I discovered in my classes with Japanese students, the Japanese also borrow an enormous number of words from English, ranging from everyday items (konpyuuta for “computer”) to abstract concepts (moraru for “moral”). This provides Japanese ESL students with a large “built-in lexicon” of English words that they already know because they are commonly used in Japan.

In one class, I was amused to hear a student refer to a car horn as kurakushon, which I took to be a borrowing of the English word “correction” – quite an evocative way to describe a blaring horn. In fact, as I later learned, kurakushon comes from “klaxon,” the name for the electric horn that makes the classic ah-OO-gah sound of early cars and submarines.

Japanese and Koreans love to use English loanwords. But Chinese rarely use them, because the Chinese language is extremely loanword-resistant. Sometimes, in a relatively upscale venue such as Starbucks or a nice restaurant, I will hear people dropping English words, usually in a context where the speakers are working together or talking about work or business. As English is the default language of international business, its not surprising to hear actual English terms like “city manager” or “enterprise software” bandied about in China. But I generally don’t hear English loanwords at all.

Consider that in Japanese, “table” is teburu, “ice cream” is aisu kurimu, and “cheerleader” is chiagaru (“cheer girl”). In Korean, those words are rendered as te-i-beul, a-i-seu keu-rim, and chi-eo ri-deo, respectively.

In China you call them zhuozi, bingqilin, and lala duizhang – there is no borrowing from English at all.

By and large, the Chinese adopt foreign words by translating them semantically rather than transliterating them – that is, transferring the semantic information (meaning) rather than the phonetic information (sound). Thus, the Chinese word for “computer” is diannao, meaning literally, “electronic brain.” (Again, the Japanese word for “computer” is konpyuuta – a transliteration.) “Democracy” is minzhu, meaning “people rule.”

Some more examples:

  • hedonism: xiangle zhuyi (literally: “to seek pleasure” + “ideology”)
  • jeans: niuzai ku (lit: “cowboy trousers”)
  • mainstream: zhuliu (lit: “main” + “stream”)

These and similar modern coinages are fun to learn. Unlike the bland phonetic borrowings in Japanese and Korean, they are vivid, meaningful and organic expressions of the Chinese language, using native Chinese words to express new and/or foreign concepts.

But I have to say that there is something pleasing to me, as a native English speaker, about the abundance of English loanwords in Japanese and Korean. Above all, I miss the craziness of Konglish (Korean English), with its distorted borrowings of English words and phrases. Besides the simple transliterations mentioned earlier, such as shopping and ice cream, Korean also has a quirky lexicon of English loanwords with altered meanings and English words combined to form novel phrases. For instance, Koreans will routinely and unselfconsciously use expressions like these:

  • a-i syo-ping (“eye shopping”) = window shopping
  • geul-lae-meo (“glamour”) = voluptuous woman
  • mi-ting (“meeting”) = blind date
  • sa-i-deo (“cider”) = soft drink such as Coke or Pepsi
  • sel-peu kae-me-ra (“self camera”) = home/amateur video

I have also heard this one in Korea:

  • syeo-teo-maen (“shutter man”) = man who is financially dependent on his wife – thus his main job is to open and close the rolling steel door (shutter) of his wife’s shop every day

Chinglish, unfortunately, is no match for the glories of Konglish.

Update: On a related note, this is just funny.

“I’m gonna do…”

Barbaric

I’m hearing this all the time now, from people of all ages and stations in life:

Customer: “Yeah, uhmmmm…. I’m gonna do a 6-inch meatball sub.”

Sandwich Artist®: “And what would you like to drink, sir?”

Customer: “Yeah, I’m gonna do a Coke.”

Where does this horrible locution come from? What is its etymology? Are linguists looking into this? Google is drawing a blank.

“Can I get…” is bad enough – a shameful mutation of the traditional “May I please have…” or the more up-to-date, but still polite “Can I have… please” / “I’ll have… please.” Apparently, we’ve reached another milestone in the descent into cultural barbarism. The next stage will be to jab your finger at the thing you want while grunting ferociously.

Jeez, people. Nobody expects you to talk like the host of Masterpiece Theater… but may you please try not to sound like an absolute moron? Thanks.