There was an interesting anomaly in a recent obituary section of my local newspaper: None of the dozens of people listed had actually died. They “departed this life” or “left us,” “went to be with the Lord” or otherwise euphemistically shuffled off this mortal coil.
It’s not just in death that spades don’t get called spades. Companies don’t cut staff, they are “right sized. Executives aren’t fired, they “pursue other interests.” Cars aren’t used, they’re “pre-owned.”
The tendency to drape verbal doilies over clear, straightforward English may stem from prissy pseudo propriety, as if a circumlocution is somehow more genteel than a simple statement of fact. Or it may be an attempt to temper reality. After all, maybe a person isn’t really dead if she or he has simply “gone home.” And the trashed Taurus that Avis dumped isn’t really a piece of junk if it’s a “program car.”
English is one of the richest languages on Earth. It is thunderously powerful and wonderously subtle. Its approximately 990,000 words dwarf the 100,000 or so of French or the approximately 50,000 that can be written in Chinese (the spoken Chinese languages have more than that, but they’re impossible to count, since as a practical necessity, vocabulary lists must be written down.)
For power, strong, plain Anglo-Saxon-root words and short, simple declarative sentences work.
For subtlety, the Latin-root words that visited to England with the Roman occupation and came to stay with the Norman conquest and more complex sentence and paragraph architecture are ideal.
Surprisingly, professional writers are just as likely to slip into mealy-mouthed euphemisms as the prissiest church-bulletin writer. Granted that no reader – or writer, for that matter – knows all 990,000 English-language words. Maybe not even the 24,000 different words Shakespeare used, or the 12,143 in the King James version of the Bible. But the 1,000 most-frequently used ones will usually do quite nicely.
If you are a writer and find yourself thinking, “That may be a bit too strong,” consider that “strong” is just what your writing should be. Make sure “polishing” isn’t eviscerating.
Beating around the bush weakens writing, but we all succumb to it occasionally. The one word fourth paragraph above wasn’t originally “Hogwash,” for example. But I was concerned that “Horseshit” might offend your sensibilities.Read More