It’s brevity they say is the soul to wit. And If that’s true, I admit… sometimes, I can be a little soulless. I grew up loving what the nuns used to call “25 cent words.”
In high school, we called them “SAT Words.” These are the words, they told us, that make you sound smart. That win you respect, jobs, and the girl of your dreams. People who use these words, they said, can walk through walls.
Boy, did they get that wrong.
No sooner did I slip into the world of the written word, to discover that bigger, Latinate vocabulary doesn’t improve the accessibility of your cogitations, rather it obfuscates it. (That is, big words can make you sound dumber… simply because you’re tripping over yourself to get your message across.)
Which is why I was thankful when longtime copywriting buddy David Deutsch sent me a copy of “Short Words Are Words of Might” by Gelett Burgess.
It’s not a book, per se. In all it’s 16 pages. And SMALL pages at that. What’s really impressive, however, is that the entire essay is written with one syllable words. (Talk about practicing what you preach!)
Burgess’ essay originally appeared in “Your Life” magazine in 1938.
Here are a few juice quotes that reveal the core idea:
“Short words must have been our first words when the world was young. The minds of men were raw… Their first words were, no doubt, mere grunts or growls, barks, whines, squeals like those of beasts. These rough, strange sounds were made to show how they felt. They meant joy or pain or doubt or rage or fear…
“But these sounds came, in time, to grow more and more plain as real words. They were short words, strong and clear. And these first short words, used by our sires way back in the dark of time, still have strength and truth. They are bred in our flesh and bone. We may well call such words the life blood of our speech.”
“Short words, you see, come from down deep in us — from our heats or guts — not from the brain. For they deal for the most part with things that move and sway us, that make us act… That, I think, is why short words tend to make our thoughts more live and true.”
In other words, says Burgess, in a point that’s often ignored, short words have power. In poetry, sure. But also in sales copy too. “Never put a policeman in an automobile,” said someone much smarter than yours truly, “when a cop in a car will do.”