How to: Avoid the Pulchritudinous Pull of Long Words in Copywriting
You all know who Russell Brand is, right? You must have heard of him.
He’s that foppish comedian and actor who sounds like he’s swallowed an entire Victorian English Dictionary, a sexually promiscuous swagger of a man, the only person on the planet to host the NME Music awards AND be a multiple winner of the Shagger of the Year award, a hero of our times if ever there was one.
Anyway, just think about the way that man speaks – a series of multi-syllabic phrases that would baffle listeners who aren’t qualified lexicographers. And yet, as he sprinkles these lengthy terms with childlike inflections like “winky” and “dinkle”, his entire linguistic pattern gives the illusion of complete accessibility.
It’s amazing really. If you’re a copywriter, one of the first things you’ll get told on the job is to cut down on any grandiloquent terms lest they frighten the casual reader.
The term “grandiloquent”, for example, would be cut from copy the moment it hit the page. Instead, I would say “long-winded” or, if I was feeling extra-descriptive, “flowery”. And I wouldn’t even consider broaching a phrase like “lexicographer”.
But with Brand the rules seem to shift – he’s stretched his word-hoard to comical lengths, flying in the face of everything the humble copywriter stands for.
That’s right, “word-hoard”. Now there’s an obscure term for you to impress your friends with.
The magic of the word hoard
Let me explain what it means.
Back in the days when Old English was widely spoken, writers and storytellers would travel the lands reciting stories to kings and pulling out fancy phrases from what they referred to as their “word-hoard”.
These writers sold the idea that words themselves had magical properties. They could hypnotise the listener into states of excitement, depression or, if you were a king waiting for a writer to stop wittering on, boredom.
The humble wordsmith was elevated to the level of a wizard with untold powers. In a lot of ways you can see why – like a magician’s sleight of hand, we use our words to evoke ideas without a reader even realising it.
Using the short word every time
In stark contrast with a verbose A-lister like Brand, the copywriter uses simpler means to weave their magic, and with good reason.
George Orwell – writer of 1984 and Animal Farm but, sadly, never a winner at the Shagger of the Year awards – famously stated in an essay on writing, “Never use a long word when a short one will do,” and he was bang on the money.
In the essay, Orwell quite rightly takes certain writers to task, citing this bizarre sentence as a prime example:
“Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder.” Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossia)
What does that even mean?!? It’s a linguistic wild goose chase if ever there was one.
When you write bilge like this, that little bit of magic ignited by words is extinguished.
In a lot of ways, you can see why most bad writing is filled with such mealy mouthed garbage – when you hide your meaning with long words, you provide people with a gossamer-thin impression of substance.
The emptiness of obscure words
Remember a few years ago, for instance, when Russell Brand was on Newsnight crying out for a world revolution?
Everyone was up in arms about it, blustering about him being a dangerous figure corrupting the minds of the youth, as though a tirade from Brand signalled the end of democracy itself.
It was all very silly, not least because Brand didn’t actually say very much.
With his usual mystifying linguistic abilities, he unleashed his word-hoard to basically say that people were a bit sick of politicians. He weaved an opinion you’d hear in your local pub into something which caused public uproar, with the simple use of flowery phrases. It’s just one example of many where a lack of clarity creates what is, in essence, a lie.
So what lessons have we learned from this blog? Well:
• Lengthy and obscure phrases tend to hide meaning rather than uncover it
• Short, sharp sentences can explain more than epic, rambling ones
• Words hold a kind of magic that can affect multitudes when harnessed properly
• George Orwell’s word is final, because, despite not having a Shagger of the Year award, that man can construct one hell of a sentence
Let’s wrap up with another little quote from Orwell who, true to form, has managed to sum up the point of this blog in one simple sentence:
“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.”
Very true, Mr Orwell. Very true indeed.
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