The Oxford English Dictionary has roughly 170,000 entries for words in “current use” and another 47,000 or so for “obsolete” words. They estimate that there are roughly a quarter of a million words in the English.
Some estimates put the total number of words in all the languages around the world at somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million.
It’s important to note that such a figure is impossible to calculate with any accuracy so take those numbers as you will.
Now, think about your high school and university educations. Spelling tests and competitions, essays with minimum word counts, the good old days of using a thick thesaurus, SAT words, Melville, Shakespeare, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and all the emphasis placed on developing an extensive vocabulary.
Now think about how different things are in corporate America and journalism from academia. Many of us have had to spend years reprogramming ourselves in order to strip away unnecessary words and literary window dressing to our communications…especially given the rapid fire world we live in when we are assaulted with constant headlines, emails, tweets, text alerts, status updates, news briefs, and so on.
At some point, it becomes essential to get to the point as quickly as possible to allow all of us to move on to the next thing.
Whether we’re preparing an internal document regarding procedural changes or crafting a sales presentation or writing an article about a local news topic to be published in a newspaper, it’s about who, what, where, when, why, and how. Get to the point and get out. Don’t use a two-dollar word when a nickel will suffice.
Social media communications is a whole other situation. Tweets are, by design, limited to 140 characters. Texts are short and to the point because otherwise they get chopped up into multiple messages and upon delivery can be out of sequence.
Enter the emoji. Happy, said, angry, perplexed, high fives, love, hate…whatever your needs, there’s an emoji for you.
Many people rail against this perceived regression in the art of communication. The “Grammar Nazis” are always quick to pounce on any misstep and literary buffs (of whose ranks I consider myself to belong) often decry that with every emoji, every rap song, and every new trendy internet slang our beautiful language’s heart comes one beat closer to its death.
But is this really the case?
Shakespeare, despite the sheer scope and depth of his work also wrote, in Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
Nietzsche, another writer/philosopher respected for his masterful use of language, “high level” writing, and a favorite among aspiring intellects once said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.”
Pascal once wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
Perhaps FDR said it most succinctly when he gave his son advice on public speaking: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”
So what does it mean when some of history’s greatest writers, many of whom are known for writing some of the heaviest, longest works in literature proclaim the importance of saying more with less?
I’ve seldom been accused of being too succinct. A lifetime of writing in academic and literary contexts and spending my professional career in a variety of communications roles has left me in a sort of limbo.
I want to write “well” and “fluidly” and even with a bit of “flair” but I also want to keep my audience’s attention.
What I’ve come to believe is that language is fluid. Our use of it is the same. Context is everything…and it’s more difficult to write with brevity than it is to write pages worth. (Take this blog as evidence.)
Sometimes we mistake brevity for lack of effort. Sometimes we say the same thing ten different ways when we could have stopped at the first. Sometimes we see a long article and assume it must be full of well-researched evidence and information while we dismiss a shorter, list-based piece for being lazy. (I’m guilty of both.)
I love a good read as much as the next book snob. There are times when I love to bathe myself in literary prose where each detail from the dust on a window sill to the scent of perfume in the air are painstakingly described, painting such a vivid picture that the dust tickles my allergies and the aroma dances beneath my nose.
Sometimes, though, I just want to know what the final score was last night or if we’re actually going to the movies at 2 pm or if we are putting it off until tomorrow.
Yes there are lazy writers and our world is populated by people who can scarcely string three words together without blasting us with “curse” words. (Curse words being their own means of communication that can be as artistically impactful as anything you’ll find on the SAT.) The internet often seems overtaken by click bait photo galleries masquerading as “news” or “information.”
But, I don’t think our language or communication skills are any more base or devolved than they were in the times that framed all those incredible works we study in classical literature classes…this concern is as timeless as the work of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and those I’ve mentioned above. It’s a worthy debate that shows quality writing is still valued.
We should all strive to be skilled and agile communicators who engage our audiences in whatever manner is most impactful in any given context or situation.
And don’t be so quick to dismiss that emoji, sometimes those little faces speak volumes. 😉
Till next time.
Be Well and Kind,