Justice for Le Mot Juste

A call for clarity or the accidental road to Newspeak Hell?

Guides to Business Writing invariably advise the author to keep their language simple; in effect to use several small words in preference to a longer one.  The advice rankles with me.  I can’t help feeling that an aversion to “big words” – be they long or simply less common – strips us of the potential to express precisely what we mean.  The English language is rich and nuanced with very few true synonyms: whether I select, pick or pluck the correct word will convey a subtly different meaning.  And if the aim of business writing is to persuade, then the choice of blunderbuss over rifle reduces the probability of hitting the target.

This is not a  call for editorial pomposity.  In fact, it is prompted by a column in today’s Financial Times in which the author, Bruce Anderson, used the word “degringolade” and was roundly mocked in the online comments*. 

To my mind, you write for the audience and choose language most appropriate to that audience.  In engaging, and seeking to persuade, that audience, having them reach for a dictionary (or worse, not) is unlikely to win them over to your cause but that does not mean we should constantly dumb down what we say.  I may struggle to think of a context in which I would use “degringolade” but I will certainly continue to use the full richness of appropriate language in order to convey my message.  To do less than that risks less, not greater, clarity.

In limiting our vocabulary, we limit our ability to think, which was – of course – the Party’s intention with Newspeak in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

* For the curious, www.urbandictionary.com defines the word as meaning “a drink mix that turns you into a white personDisappointed smile.  As the column concerned the recent experiences of Dr Liam Fox, readers may find Wiktionary’s definition – “a rapid decline or deterioration, a tumble” – to be more contextually pleasing.

P.S. I am also reminded of Jaron Lanier’s theme, in You Are Not A Gadget, that we become constrained and defined by the limits we (inadvertently) place on our perception. In describing the impact which MIDI had upon our relationship to music, he wrote:

“Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition…. After MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure…”


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