On the Beauty of English

Last weekend, I read a leader in the Economist praising short words. The amazing thing about it was that it used only short words — words of one syllable — for about 500 words and it came across as wonderfully written. At the same time, I bemoan the loss of some of the texture of English; we have a rich palette of words to choose from, yet find ourselves often resorting to “stuff,” and “thing,” and repeating the clichés of our peers. Microsoft in particular has its own language — one of acronyms and software development and marketing buzzwords. Sometimes, we use wonderful words like canonical and orthogonal with great acuity. Sometimes, however, we fall back on stock phrases about “laser-like focus” and “driving to results.” Sometimes, we discover odd new words like “ideation.” But rarely do we pull from the rich colors of the English language tapestry.

So, this week, I embarked on a mission to use underused words in my daily emails. So far, I have managed to characterize the magnitude of a problem as “Brobdingnagian,” and have worked “pecuniary” into another email, plus dropped in “defenestrate” and “fecund” to a conversation. I look forward to your suggestions for other underrepresented words that I can weave in. No obscenities please.

Comments (10)

  1. Paul says:

    Exellent idea… An older Indian gentleman called a young woman here at work a minx…. It was a perfect fit… Made me wish I had thought of it!

  2. I believe that could be construed as harassment.

  3. The English language has got words for everything callipygian or callipygous for instance…

  4. That’s a new word for me. Very useful.

  5. When you add vicissitude, you need to add turpitude. The two "tudes."

  6. Stuart says:

    How about "indefatigable"?

    (btw, I love "callipygian" – who’d have thought there’d be a word for that?)

  7. Ken Cowan says:

    Hi John,


    I used it in a presentation a month or so ago and got asked what it meant. Oh well. In the field of software, we’re so often faced with conundrums it’s a shame people don’t use the word more often.

    I encountered a bit of backlash when I changed my writing style for e-mail. Several years ago, I had the honor of having Lee The, an excellent editor at Fawcette, rewrite a technical article I wrote. After seeing his work, I grasped for the first time the impact of verb tense and sentence structure on the readability of my writing. Sometime later, I learned the tricks of a newspaper journalist and began writing e-mail messages using short sentences, active voice and trying to keep the summary short enough to be "above the fold". The backlash was that some people took my e-mail as being too direct. When I explained that I was trying to make it easy to skim, my colleague took that comment as condesending.

    I’m now trying to achieve a compromise — not as short but still using first person/active voice.

    I find it interesting to observe and think about the impact of word choice and sentence structure on the effectiveness of communication. Sometimes you can see the mis-communication occur as you watch an e-mail train cycle through your inbox.