Archives For Simple Language

A Literary Phobia

May 2, 2013 — 8 Comments

hipposWhat in the world does this protracted word mean?

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

From the suffix, we can assume that it refers to some sort of “fear.” But fear of what? Hippopotami?

No, this lengthy word doesn’t refer to the African “river horses” from which it derives its beginning. This peculiar construction describes nothing other than a fear of long words!

I know people who find long words daunting . . . but none who have admitted to be in fear of them. I myself am a bit intimidated by unfamiliar words that I have to pronounce in front of others. (I recently visited a writing group that caught me off guard with their practice of reading one another’s work out loud. Not only was I the first person expected to begin reading the first article critiqued that morning—it included a number of words from French cuisine with which I was unfamiliar.)

I don’t mind encountering unfamiliar words in a text (that I’m reading privately), especially when the meaning is evident from the context. In fact, I often enjoy the introduction, since it expands my own vocabulary.

The fact his, however, that many very gifted writers warn their readers to avoid lengthy or complicated words.

Just last week I contrasted George Orwell’s writing advice with that of C.S. Lewis. Orwell said,

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.”

C.S. Lewis, included in his short list of advice the encouragement to,

“Always prefer the plain, direct word to the long, vague one.”

While these suggestions may “sound” identical, they are not. Orwell is concerned here with simplicity (rather than brevity, per se). Lewis, though, is advocating clarity.

Lewis does not object at all to using a multisyllabic word. He merely argues that the choice needs to be one that helps communicate rather than confuse. Allow me to share a simple example. Following Lewis’ counsel, one of these sentences would be problematic, while the other would be okay.

Life is all about love.

Experiencing contentment and joy relates directly to one’s ability to offer, and receive, affection from other human beings.

Obviously one sentence is far more complex than the other. However, it’s meaning is quite clear. The simpler, five word sentence is so vague as to allow for any number of interpretations. For example, in addition to the alternative above, it might mean (to its writer):

Without a foundation of self-love, we cannot experience life to its fullest.

     or . . .

At the Final Judgment, it is only our acts of love that will pass intact through the “purifying fire.”

     or . . .

The more people with whom you can “sow your wild oats,” the happier you will be.

The Government Intervenes

Amazing as it may seem, the United States government actually has a website devoted to promoting simple language: plainlanguage.com. It exists to help implement the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

While the effectiveness of the statute is debatable, it’s intention is praiseworthy.

On one page it directs agencies to avoid complex words. Instead of “endeavoring to assist,” writers are told to use “told to help.” While that is absolutely commendable in governmental documents, I prefer a bit more flavor when I’m reading for pleasure.

I strongly encourage anyone suffering from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to seek professional help. This is especially true for those who desire to express themselves clearly. We need never fear a lengthy word—as long as we are using the right word!