Big Words Mean Small Things

When I was at University of Florida, I was privileged to take creative fiction writing with Harry Crews. He'd published numerous novels, his own memoir and essays for publications like Esquire and Playboy. He knew his stuff. A favorite teaching technique of his was to drop gruff bon mots whenever someone would read their piece out loud, finding short and memorable ways to tell them their writing is awful.

One of the phrases that stuck with me the most was, "big words mean small things." If you've ever read anything by Harry, you know that despite its relative brevity, his writing was always rich and deep, mining his characters messy, dark humanity for universal truths. And he hated florid, fancy, meaningless language that only served to show the reader how smart the writer is.

Unfortunately, many business writers never learned that lesson. They love jargon and jump at creating their own "concept" word to make their common-sense ideas seem profound or thought leadery. But jargon is a fool's crutch. It allows people to memorize specific words and phrases so they can use them with authority without learning what the underlying reasoning was to create it, or if there is a simpler way to express it.

Always try to use words people already know

One problem with jargon is lay people rarely know what it means. If you're trying to get a point across to a larger group of people, using language they don't know is a quick way to get them to stop reading. Thinking back again to Harry Crews and his pithy quotes, he loved to tell us that if a character " in a blue room, just tell me the room is blue. I don't care how that blue room makes you feel." He believed in only using as many words as you need to tell a story, and if the words you use are jargon, you're creating a story that's lost to a large portion of your audience.

Another downside, that people probably aren't telling you, is that relying too much on jargon can make you sound like a poser. Whenever I hear people using jargon, I hear Damon Wayans' Oswald Bates character trying to sound smart by stringing together big words to sound thoughtful but ending up saying things like, "suppress your defecation." The next time you want to use the word actionable to discuss whether an agenda item is practical, try using the word "practical" instead.

English has a lot of words, you don't need to make up your own

There are roughly a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, excluding technical and regional words not in the Oxford English Dictionary. Chances are, that fancy word you think you thought up has a precedent just waiting for you to use, even if you don't know it, yet. Like guesstimate. That's a popular one that sets my teeth on edge because what is a "guesstimate" if not an estimate? And yet, "guesstimate" became so common that it made its way into the Merriam Webster dictionary.

If your impulse is to create a word by adding a prefix or to change the word class from noun to verb, please don't. Adding modifiers like "co-" to an existing word doesn't change or expand its meaning, it just creates confusion. And word class matters. You don't "architect" a process. You design it.

A trick I learned to expand my vocabulary was to always look up a second word on the page when referring to a dictionary. So, when you want to create a word, think of the jargon you are replacing like, say bandwidth, and do a synonym search. You'll have to remember the non-jargon word bandwidth replaced, either time or resources, to find a better option, though, because online dictionaries and thesauruses don't recognize business jargon.

On a personal note, please stop using the phrase "human capital." It puts co-workers and teammates on par with office supplies. It may sound like you're being "holistic" in your approach to improving productivity and efficiency, but what the phrase actually does is remove all humanity from your workforce. They're reduced to being line items on a spreadsheet.

Next time you have to write anything—whether it's an email, a newsletter, a blog post, whatever—don't be afraid to use simple words. They mean the most.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash


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