In Defense of Big Words

26 January 2011 at 11:44 pm 7 comments

| Peter Klein |

A cardinal rule of clear communication is never to use a long, obscure word or phrase when a shorter, more common one will do. Orwell thought this was of Brobdingnagian importance — sorry, a big deal — and Hemingway famously rebutted Faulkner’s critique of his writing style by pitying

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Mencken, referring to the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen, says “[t]he prevalence of very short words in English, and the syntactial law which enables it to dispense with the definite article in many constructions . . . are further marks of vigor and clarity.” And of course we can all name scholars, even whole fields and genres, marked by particularly murky and obscure prose. (Question: Does academic jargon reform pass the remediableness criterion? LOL.)

However, according to a group of MIT linguists, as reported in Nature (via Azra Raza), big words often contain more information than their shorter counterparts, and word choice is mostly a function of information content:

For many years, linguists have tended to believe that the length of a word was associated with how often it was used, and that short words are used more frequently than long ones. This association was first proposed in the 1930s by the Harvard linguist George Kingsley Zipf.

Zipf believed that the relationship between word length and frequency of use stemmed from an impulse to minimize the time and effort needed for speaking and writing, as it means we use more short words than long ones. But Steven Piantadosi and colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge say that, to convey a given amount of information, it is more efficient to shorten the least informative — and therefore the most predictable — words, rather than the most frequent ones. . . .

But after analyzing word use in 11 different European languages, Piantadosi and colleagues found that word length was more closely correlated with their information content than with how often they are used.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nicolai Foss  |  27 January 2011 at 6:37 am

    Hmmm … I wonder if this post has been prompted by our joint writing experience over the last few weeks …. ;-)

  • 2. Roger Koppl  |  27 January 2011 at 7:14 am

    Adam Smith told us to use Anglo-Saxon words in preference to Latin and Greek words. Anglo-Saxon words are short, Latin and Greek words can be long.

  • 3. Per Bylund  |  27 January 2011 at 9:26 am

    If this study was specifically of Germanic languages I am not very surprised. After all, Germanic languages tend to use composite words for more specific meaning (“more” information?) whereas Romance languages and bastard Germanic languages (such as English) almost exclusively use such highly specific terms in their original words clearly separated by space.

    But maybe this begs the question of what really is a word. Is a composite a word or multiple words?

  • 4. Michael Marotta  |  28 January 2011 at 10:55 am

    Hard to say…. One of my other languages is Hungarian, which, like Turkish, is agglutative: you make phrases by adding to root words. Szerelem is “love” but there are 200 szer~ words in Hungarian, all of which have to do with manipulating things, or posssessing them in some way. Love is a transitive verb.

    I had two college classes in Japanese for business; and a couple of community ed classes in Italian and Arabic; and I taught myself enough classical Greek and Tibetan to publish articles about the coins of the cultures. I had so much German in junior high and high school that my SAT Achievement scores in German were higher than the ones in English. All of which is to say, “I dunno…” Most likely, both theories are valid in context.

  • 5. Rafe  |  28 January 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Lets do a simple experiment and see how much value can be added to a simple message by using bigger words.

    1. How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?

    2. What is the number of public thoughfares that a male homo sapiens must negotiate to make it possible for miscellaneous others to designate him as a male homo sapiens?

  • 6. Michael E. Marotta  |  28 January 2011 at 7:41 pm

    What is the mininum number of significant alternatives each of us must succesfully negotiate before being acknowledged by our peers?

    (The above operatively assumes that the subject is not a male, and allows that the definition of “manhood” is independent of the genitalia. Simplicity is not always a virtue; and being complicated is not always a vice.)

  • 7. SW  |  1 February 2011 at 2:38 am

    Rafe’s remark is cute. But to answer the question: ‘rabbit’. Rafe (or Uncle Bob) asks, ‘What?’ ‘God says, Abraham, kill me a son!’ ‘What?’ “You must be putting me on.”
    The original posting of the quote from Sir Dylan (Uncle Bob) is ambiguous. What is Uncle bob’s speaker asking, exactly?
    It seems to suggest that one road walked is not enough.
    No. Maybe it is ironic, and means that any (one) road is enough.
    So, as long as a male has walked some road, that male is entitled to be called ‘man.’
    But what would this ‘road’ and ‘walking’ it entail?
    If any and all roads walked are the same, then the road as metaphor is meaningless.
    Thus we can see the entire query posed as ironic.
    There is no need to walk any road at all, no matter what ‘road’ means.
    Thus the argument devolves to: all males are men.
    And if this is the case, then there are too many words in the song lyric.

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