The Power of Lexicographers

Over on Change.org, there is a petition to change the definition of marriage to “reflect the reality that there is only one kind of marriage — one between two loving adults, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This petition highlights a few fascinating things about dictionaries and the power of lexicographers. There are, however, a few things to understand before we get into the harmless drudgery of what’s at stake here.

First, many dictionaries these days are written using a corpus, or a large data bank of texts. The words in the texts are tagged for their part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) to make the corpus more easily searchable. Lexicographers then use the corpora to not only help them define a word, but also (and this is key) to help them rank the different senses of each word’s definition. The more often a sense of a word is used, the higher it will be in the list. This is why Macmillan lists the “financial institution” sense of bank before the “raised area of land along the side of a river” sense.

That’s a very broad way to define what lexicographers do. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out Kory Stamper’s excellent blog, Harmless Drudgery. She is a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and her posts are a joy to read. What’s important to know is that lexicographers try to be as impartial as possible and they use computers to help them with this. As Ms. Stamper notes in a post full of advice for budding lexicographers, “The number one rule of lexicography is you never, ever intentionally insert yourself into your defining. Your goal as a lexicographer is to write a definition that accurately and concisely conveys how a word is used without distracting the reader with humor.” Or, in this case, malice.

Second, the petition says that “Currently Dictionary.com has two separate definitions for the word marriage — one for heterosexual marriage, and one for same-sex marriage.” That’s not entirely true. Dictionary.com has at least ten definitions for marriage. What the petition is referencing is the two senses of the first definition of marriage. Here’s the screenshot:

Third, the definitions in Dictionary.com come from both “experienced lexicographers” and over fifteen “trusted and established sources including Random House and Harper Collins.” According to them, they are “the world’s largest and most authoritative online dictionary.”* The definition for marriage does not say which dictionary it is pulled from, so I think it’s safe to assume that the lexicographers at Dictionary.com wrote it. It doesn’t really matter, as this post is about lexicography as a whole.

Now that we have an idea about how dictionaries are written and what’s going on at Dictionary.com, we can see the curious nature of the petition. Dictionaries do not tell society how words are defined, rather, for the most part, it is the other way around. If you want to be pedantic about it, you could say that society and dictionaries inform each other. (Let’s not get into the whole prescriptive/descriptive nature and history of dictionary, ok?) So at first the petitioner would seem to be mistaken.

And yet, he has a point. Here’s why.

The difference between a male/female marriage and a male/male or female/female marriage is just that: plus or minus a few letters on either side of the slash mark. No dictionary would list separate senses for marriages between Caucasians and African-Americans or for those between a blue-eyed and green-eyed people, so why bother splitting the definition in terms of gender?

There is also the fact that dictionaries do have some authority. People could defend what’s currently in Dictionary.com’s definition of marriage by saying that it merely reflects the lexicographers’ research into how the word is used (which may be based on a corpus). But with over 100,000 signatures on the petition, dictionaries clearly mean more to people than just a reflection of how we use words. In fact, Stephen Colbert – no stranger to defining words – mentioned this issue on his show in 2009 when he noted that Merriam-Webster’s had included the “same-sex” sense of marriage in a 2003 update to its dictionary. When lexicographers define words, people notice (after six years).

On the other hand, 100,000 speakers of English equates to anywhere from 0.03% to 0.005% of the total population of English speakers worldwide (wildly speculative numbers based on Ethnologue’s estimate of primary speakers to Britannica’s estimate of total speakers). Either way, that’s nowhere near a majority. We should be happy the “same-sex” version of marriage is in there at all.

And then there’s the fact that native speakers do not need a dictionary to define marriage for them. If I told another native speaker over the age of fourteen that Adam and Steve got married, they would understand what I meant and, depending on their political bent, view this as, well, however they wanted to.

But this points out the dilemma that lexicographers face. In my mind, putting the “same-sex” sense of marriage second does not amount to a “brush off” or “blurb” as the petition would have us believe. I wouldn’t accuse lexicographers of doing either for any word in a dictionary, but I would assume they had a good reason to separate the two meanings; namely, the separate but similar (not equal) uses of the word. And yet, some people would take offense because the state of marriage right now is a hot button issue in the United States. Lexicographers are like referees in at least one way: someone is always going to hate them.

The lexicographers for Dictionary.com were most likely well aware that some people may take offense to how they defined marriage, but what were they supposed to do?

Here’s how some other dictionaries handled marriage:

    Macmillan left gender out of the definition, saying just “the relationship between two people who are husband and wife.”

    Merriam-Webster is in the same boat as Dictionary.com, separating the senses in a very similar way.

    The American Heritage Dictionary included the “same-sex” sense in the first sense with an explanation of it being only “in some jurisdictions”

    Oxford English Dictionary included a note to how the term is “sometimes used” today (screen shot below, since it’s behind a pay wall):

Would any of these satisfy everyone? More importantly, do we really want our lexicographers using politics to define words? Haven’t they got enough on their desks already?

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Collins Dictionary defines marriage in the first sense as “the state of being married; relation between spouses; married life; wedlock; matrimony.” It makes you wonder why Dictionary.com didn’t didn’t use that definition and call it a day.

 

 

 

*My apologies to the lexicographers and word smiths who just spit their drink all over their computer screen. That “most authoritative” part was apparently not a joke. Now, let’s all pick our jaws up off the floor and go back up to where we were.

Whatever Happened to Innovation in the USA?

Or, why the difference between innovation from above and innovation from below matters

In a recent interview on NPR’s Science Friday program, everyone’s favorite astrophysicist* Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about innovation. Tyson has written a new book which discusses, among other things, the way that society benefited from innovation in the space race of the 1960s. With this post I want to tell you about my own experience with innovation in the USA and the two different types of innovation there are, an idea that should be raised more often.

Tyson argues that the innovation needed in space travel – the innovation needed to go farther and farther every single day – brought untold benefits to society through the engineers it needed, the products it created (which were applied elsewhere), through the economy it stimulated, etc. He has a point, but I’m interested to see if he mentions that the reason society benefits from such innovation is because it is the type of innovation that is writ large over society. The space race was innovation on a large scale. It was the driving force (and in some ways the weapon) of the Cold War. Hence everyone in society was indebted to this large scale innovation. When everyone has a stake in the innovation of a country, as they did in the space race, there is a collective agreement of the benefit of innovation. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it is innovative.

Innovation on a small scale, however, is a different story. Innovation from below, as it could be called, takes a entirely different mind set. In business, it sometimes comes out of necessity – innovate or go bust. This is similar to the innovation of the space race. But micro-innovation (let’s settle on this term, shall we?) also comes about unforced. Sometimes a clever person, whose business is more or less fine the way it is, recognizes the benefits of an innovative idea and, to use the official business-speak term, capitalizes on it. More often than not, however, micro-innovation is passed over. Allow me to offer an example.

I used to work for a company in the US. This company had a program to welcome new employees into the fold. The program was called something like Welcome, New Employees, Into The Fold™. In this program, new employees were asked to read a chapter from a best-selling business how-to manifesto. The chapter talked about the real-life innovative leader who built an innovative tech company on innovation. Naturally, I assumed the take-away message was supposed to be “Innovation. We like. So should you.” I was informed later that it was “Do as we say, not as our favorite manifesto chapter tells you.” Makes you wonder why they bothered to waste the paper, but then again, that’s what manifestos are all about.

Shortly after I left this company (on good terms), I offered them an innovative way to increase their sales. I would use my training in linguistics to study their marketing campaigns and I would to do it for free. The benefit for me was that my research would allow me to write my master’s thesis. It was a win-win. (I’m intentionally being vague about my master’s thesis since, so far as I can tell, it really is innovative. It’s at least the kind of research that could launch a career in either business or academia, depending on the results. Interested parties can feel free to contact me.)

And yet, like most micro-innovation cases, my idea was denied. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are some obvious answers as to why. First, business professionals are a cautious to cowardly bunch. If you told them of the chances that they would be killed in a car accident on the way to work, they would find a reason to work from home. So when faced with the opportunity to increase their sales by doing nothing but allowing a post grad student to analyze their marketing texts, they find ways to say no, to brush it off, or to disregard it. Creating one’s own misfortune is not unheard of, even in the business world.

A second reason why my idea was turned down has to do with the “business as usual” mind set. My former employer makes millions each year, They fear change because they assume it’s going to be change for the worse. More importantly, while there’s no telling what kind of profit my innovation could have brought them, it’s safe to assume it would have been in the thousands of dollars. That’s chump change for mid-sized American companies. Why should they take on my idea when business as usual is already bringing in millions?

Finally, and most relevant to the macro-innovation that Mr. Tyson talked about, is the fact that micro-innovation is not established in the US. There is no culture of post graduate students doing research for companies to complete their degree. There is a culture of small innovations making big waves, but these are all either start-ups or internal happenings at large companies (like 3M). There is no zeitgeist of micro-innovation, no pressure from society on creating it day after day, and no agreement that it brings untold benefits to those who seize it. Yet it comes up all the time.

This last notion is related to the type of micro-innovation that comes out of necessity because companies can live or die on it. Most people with an innovative idea have a very good reason for why it will be successful. If they are declined by one company, they are not likely to give up on the idea. They are simply going to move on to the next company. And that spells danger for the companies who passed on the innovation. So instead of companies living by the “be innovative or die” motto, there are also those remembered by the “we died because we were not innovative” warning.

And nobody writes chapters in business books about those companies.


* Except maybe this guy.

Book Review: Babel No More by Michael Erard

In Babel No More, Michael Erard goes on a search for hyperpolyglots – people who are said to speak over six languages. But he also wants to know about the legendary hyperpolyglots who are rumored to speak more than 50, 60, or even 70 languages. You can therefore understand why I approached this book with a healthy dose of skepticism. Do I believe one person can speak 70 languages? No. Do I believe that other people believe that someone can speak 70 languages? Yes. After all, that’s where the legends of these hyperpolyglots came from. But I’ve had training in linguistics. Language is a trickier subject for me.

I was skeptical that Erard would not approach the subject of hyperpolyglots with as much skepticism as me. Fortunately, I was wrong. Erard is on point with the nature of language learners, separating the fact from fiction in the legend of the hyperpolyglot:

The hyperpolyglot embodies both of these poles: the linguistic wildness of our primordial past and the multilingualism of the looming technotopia. That’s why stories circulate about this or that person who can speak an astounding number of languages – such people are holy freaks. Touch one, you touch his power. […] Once you say you speak ten languages, you’ll soon hear the gossip that you speak twenty or forty. That’s why people who speak several languages have been mistrusted as spies; people wonder where their loyalties lie.

Jacket design by Zocalo Design

Needless to say, Erard finds many interesting characters in his journey of hyperpolyglots. It’s part of what makes the book so interesting. But he also gets into how language works. And, thankfully, he doesn’t do it from a best-seller pop-science fascinating-but-total-bullshit way. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, but I can give you a sample quote:

Language, however, encompasses more than the communicating we sometimes do with it. If language had evolved solely for the means of communication, we’d rarely misunderstand each other. Instead, we have a system in which worlds mean more than one thing, in which one can devise many sentences to capture the same idea, in which one moment of silence means more than a thousand pictures. No animal species could survive this intensity of ambiguity. Moreover, people don’t appreciate how little of our meaning is in our words, even as we decipher hand gestures, facial movements, body postures automatically every day. What we mean is implied by us and then inferred by our listeners.

The real beauty of Babel No More, however, is the way in which Erard demystifies the process of language learning without removing the wonderment that people attribute to it. If anything, when you better understand the multifaceted nature of language learning, you will appreciate it more, while at the same time avoid being fooled into thinking someone could speak 70 languages or that someone who speaks more than three must be a spy.

 
 

Up next: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.

The Problem with Computer Grammar Checkers [Updated]

When I moved this blog over to WordPress, I noticed that under the Users > Personal Settings page there is an option to turn on a computer proofreader. The program is from Automattic (the same people that make WordPress) and it’s called After the Deadline. While an automatic proofreader isn’t anything spectacular in itself, the grammar and style mistakes that this proofreader can supposedly prevent you from making are eye-popping:

bias language, cliches, complex phrases, diacritical marks, double negatives, hidden verbs, jargon, passive voice, phrases to avoid, and redundant phrases.

It’s an impressive looking list, but anyone with even mediocre writing skills and experience with computer proofreaders is likely to be wary. How often has Microsoft Word mistakenly underlined some of your text? How many times has your smartphone autocorrected you into incomprehension?

The thing is, when presented with such a list, even a confident writer couldn’t be blamed for being curious. Are you unwittingly making grammar mistakes in your carefully crafted prose? Have you been straying outside the accepted limits of complex and redundant phrases? Are there verbs hiding in your text? And holy shit, what the hell are diacritical marks?

Let’s put those ridiculous questions aside for a moment. Many people have pointed out what’s wrong with automatic spelling and grammar checkers. What I want to do here is show you why there are problems with these programs by using some highly regarded prose.

Let’s fire up the incinerator.

"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf*

At the first green line, After the Deadline suggests, “Did you mean… ‘its fine tomorrow?’” Things are not off to a good start. The three other green lines warn me (or Ms. Woolf) about the Dreaded Passive Voice™. The blue line suggests that “Complex Expression” be changed to “plans.”But perhaps the worst suggestion is given by clicking on the red line – “Did you mean… ‘sense,’ ‘cents,’ ‘scents?’” Moving on…

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

The blue line is another “Complex Expression,” which After the Deadline suggests be changed to “way.” That’s not so bad. The green line, however, is (according to the proofreader) an example of a “Hidden Verb.” What’s a hidden verb, you ask? As the After the Deadline explains, “A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.” But this doesn’t make any sense. Constant had not been nominalized, while had is one of the most common (and easiest to read) verbs in English. I’m told to “revise ‘had a constant’ to bring out the verb,” but I don’t know what that means. Alert readers will begin to see the problem here. So will everyone else.

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

Here’s the Dreaded Passive Voice™ again. Geoffrey Pullum would have a fit with this program (comments are open, Geoff! Let us know how you really feel!). I guess the proofreader wants me to change the sentence to something like, “So I called myself Pip, and people called me Pip?” It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

All I really need to say here is that the second green line says “Hyphen Required” and suggests I change the phrase to “out-of-the-way.” Really? Yes, really.

To be sure, I ran some other styles of writing through After the Deadline, such as Pulitzer Prize winners, and got the same results. You’re welcome to run anything you want through there, but I got $20 bucks saying you’re going to get the same nonsense I did.

Getting back to those ridiculous questions, the answers are all irrelevant. If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I can’t believe anyone except the most inexperienced writers would be fooled by After the Deadline’s “corrections.” This isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to grammar checkers because they are at best useless and at worst harmful. But the way in which we rely on technology threatens to undermine our own writing. Insecure writers might be tricked into believing that After the Deadline’s suggestions are legit. And that is the real problem with these programs. Their potential to do more harm than good is a ratio approaching one since it’s almost impossible for them to do good.

Finally, I’d just like to add that when I used After the Deadline on this post, two terms were underlined in the explanation of hidden verbs:

“A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.”

The program says that nominalization isn’t a word and that I should write “fewer words” instead of “less words.” But that is a quote from the program itself! If even the makers of After the Deadline can’t (or won’t) follow their own guidelines, why should you?

And so I have decided to destroy the machine. Feeding this next piece of prose into your grammar checker is equivalent to setting its controls for the heart of the sun.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

 

[Update – Feb. 28, 2011] It’s always nice when someone with first-hand knowledge weighs in on the discussion. In this case, former After the Deadline developer Raphael Mudge was kind enough to stop by and leave his thoughts, to which I responded below.

[Update – Mar. 16, 2012] I heard from the WordPress staff about why they chose to incorporate After the Deadline into their software. Actually, I was directed to the post on the WordPress.com blog about the incorporation. I’m a bit disappointed in this, however. First, although the WordPress staff tells me that “There are many reasons to explain why we chose this service to help WordPress.com users with their writing, but you can read our announcement post for the full details,” their post is not full of “details.” Second, neither the email I got nor the WordPress blog post addresses any of the problems with automatic grammar or spell checkers. Oh well.

But most importantly, I don’t think the author of the post is serious when he says he “was blown away” by After the Deadline. Did he run his own post through there? What the hell did it look like before he did? And why didn’t he accept all of the suggestions? And judging by the comments on the post, when will a psychologist do a study with an automatic grammar checker with incorrect suggestions just to see how blindly people will obey their master?

By the way, running this update through AtD underlines “incorporate,” “was directed,” and “all of the.” Feel free to guess why if you really have nothing better to do.

 

 

 

*So much for only using said to carry dialogue, amIright, Elmore? Way to go, Virginia, you dope.

Lexicon Valley Shout Out

I mentioned the Slate.com podcast Lexicon Valley in my post last week, “Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones.” If you haven’t checked it out already, you should.

I’m plugging it again because the third episode is up and I got a shout out for my submission to their LexiConundrum puzzle. Co-host Mike Vuolo gave two initial letters and the task of the puzzle was to come up with adjectival present participles that matched. For example, firing squad would fit in the given initials F___ S___.

Mr. Vuolo was being nice by not saying my name and broadcasting the extreme nerdiness of my sense of humor. I thank him for that, but anyone who knows me knows that I have no such concern. And so, the joke was:

Adjectival Present Participles = Worst. Band name. Ever.

This week’s episode discusses “the hypercorrected incorrectness of ‘between you and I.'” The LexiConundrum asks listeners to submit a name for a specific type of usage of this term. Check out the feed here. The archives are here.

Confidential to Mr. Vuolo: From one nerdy joker to another, that was a good one. I’m going to pretend such a conversation took place between Mick and Keith because it sounds hilarious.

Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones*

Besides being a great song on a great album (Leave Home), “Suzy is a Headbanger” by the Ramones also has a very interesting line:

Suzy is a headbanger,
Her mother is a geek.

These lyrics puzzled me because they didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I read the term “feed the geek” in Babel No More by Michael Erard (review forthcoming) that I decided to look into it. It turns out, the reason the lyrics didn’t make sense to me was because I was thinking of geek in its contemporary sense, the one Macmillan defines as “n. Someone who is boring, especially because they seem to be interested only in computers.” Even more recently, as we all know, the term has become to mean something like enthusiast or to describe a particular way of practicing some activity (as in geek sex). But since “Suzy” was written around 1976, those are obviously not the intended meanings.

The problem is, I’m having a hard time believing that Joey Ramone meant the other, older sense of the word. I looked at multiple dictionaries, but all of them basically defined this sense as “n. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.” Mmm! Mothers bring your daughters, fathers brings your sons!

So what’s going on? Did he really mean to sing geek? If he didn’t mean that Suzy’s mom is a circus freak and he couldn’t have meant that she’s a computer nerd, what did he mean? The song obviously portrays Suzy in a positive light, so was he doing something like Bob Dylan did in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” and questioning what we think of as normalcy?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak ?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone.

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of the Thin Man

Or did geek have a meaning specific to punks in New York (or punks anywhere) in the 1970s?

There was a 70s Australian punk band in Perth called the Geeks, but knowing what I know about punk rockers, they tend to relish in classifying themselves as the outcasts. It’s a way to welcome someone in and strengthen group identity (The Ramones chant, “Gabba! Gabba! We accept you, we accept you! One of us!” perfectly encapsulates this notion). So were they saying that Suzy’s mom was one of them?

Besides the Perth band, I couldn’t find any connection of geek to the 1970s punk rock scene, so I decided to look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English. If geek was being used by the punks in the 70s, I assumed it was also being used by at least the music journalists as well. I just hoped it was being used in the same way. There were two hits for “geek.[nn1]” in the 1970s, both being the carnival kind of geek. The 1980s is where things start to change since there are five hits – two carnival geeks, two nerd geeks, and one I’m not really sure of (it’s hard to tell from the bit context). After that, the usage really takes off with thirty-three hits in the 1990s and 104 hits in the 2000s.

This still hasn’t answered my question, however. Certainly another word besides geek would fit there just as easily, especially if you’re rhyming it with “ooh ooh wee.” But there’s the catch. I want to conclude that Joey was speaking positively of Suzy’s mother, but that’s not realistic. Joey was most likely using geek to describe a disapproving mother.

Wordnik, which is a great site, lists one definition of geek as “n. An unfashionable or socially undesirable person.” Today there might be wide agreement on which type of person is a geek (because we’re all so cool, you know, man?), but what’s interesting is that in “Suzy is a Headbanger” we have a counter-culture band, who by no means owned the majority stake of Cool, using geek to insult a member of another group. But the reason he’s doing so is that he sees Suzy’s mother as being judgmental, which is not a trait often attributed to geeks. So there’s a disconnect between the connotations of the two meanings of geek, which suggests the term was in flux. Notice also that insulting someone else by calling them a geek is simultaneously an attempt to prove one’s cool, but that’s beside the point.

I think geek is a great case of how quickly words can change their meanings, something linguistics call “semantic shift.” It’s also a simple example of what linguistics mean when they say, “We’re not sure.” Words are tricky things to pin down, especially when they are ones that are used infrequently. Add to that someone using the word in a novel way (or at least with a slightly different meaning) and things get even trickier. Had Joey’s meaning taken off, we might today be using geek to describe older people who disapprove of the younger generation’s activities. Geek then would have a decidedly uncool meaning. Instead, being a geek is an aspiration since it means not only enthusiasm, but knowledge and mastership of a certain area. The success of this meaning of geek, of course, is obviously due to the success of computers and the success of geek as an adjective to be applied to any and all activities. In this way, later in Babel No More, Michael Erard can write, “Indeed, boasting about the languages one has studied or can speak is a display of geek machismo,” and everyone understands the meaning.

As a side note, for those interested in linguistics, semantic shift, or the etymology of contemptuous words, I recommend checking out Slate.com’s new podcast Lexicon Valley. They have two episodes and both are excellent. What’s even better, and even more pertinent to this article, is that in the second episode, entitled “The Other F-Word,” you get to hear linguist Arnold Zwicky reference Pansy Division. What a headbanger.

[Update – July 24, 2012] The Oxford Dictionaries blog has written twice about geek. The most recent post compares the collocates of geek to nerd in their corpus, while the older post explains the transformation in the meaning of geek. Sadly, there is no mention of the Ramones. Maybe it’s time for them to update their corpus?

Here are the posts:
Embrace Your Geekness – July 13, 2012
Are You Calling Me a Geek? Why, *Thank You* – March 4, 2011

 

 

 

*These are a few of my favorite things.

The Real Reason Short Words Are Best

In the opening of a recent Macmillan Dictionary Blog post, Robert Lane Greene quotes the editor of the Economist’s style guide, who in turn quotes Winston Churchill as saying “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Greene then goes on to discuss how difficult it is to write clearly. If you think you’ve heard this one before, don’t. Greene’s post is brief, practical, and a touch insightful. He believes that journalists often get a “bad rap” as writers of plain English because of the schedules they are under. I can go along with that.

Greene also says that metaphors are one way writers can improve. He says there are “three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad.” The two bad kinds are tired metaphors and strained metaphors. Greene suggests using the best kind of metaphors, those that are “simple, clear, memorable and quite often short.”

Greene uses the conventional meaning of “metaphor,” of course, since that’s how most people still understand the term. But the updated meaning shows us that phrases like on Wednesday and the sun came out are also metaphors (for those unfamiliar, think about actually putting something on a day in the way we put something on a table). This realization of metaphors lurking all around our language is important because it adds what I think is the most important element of Greene’s (and Churchill’s and the unnamed Economist editor’s) belief that short words are best. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into Conceptual Metaphor Theory or Blending. I’m trying to keep your attention, believe it or not.)

Consider the opening to Greene’s post, which is really the opening to the Economist editorial:

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:
“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

Churchill, Greene, and our anonymous editor aren’t the only ones that love short words. You’ll hear language gurus promoting them all over the place. It’s a common idea, but a good one. It goes: Keep it simple, stupid.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that short words are anything but “plain.” The more I think about them, the more I realize that short words are downright complex, especially ones like prepositions. For example, you know what on, of, at, in, etc. mean, but could you define them? It’s pretty tough when you think about it. Fortunately, every language has a way of expressing the notions that prepositions in English express, such as spatial relations. So when you encounter a new language, no matter if it has prepositions or suffixes doing the job of English prepositions, you will be able to understand them. That’s not plain, in my mind. Prepositions do some complicated things.

I don’t think Greene, Churchill or Mr. Editor were talking about prepositions, though. So let’s think about some other short and “plain” words. The English word set, according to Macmillan, has fifteen definitions. Stand has seventeen definitions. Run has nineteen. And that’s not counting the entries for phrases that include these words.

These are not plain words. Short words are not great because they are “to the point,” but because they are to so many points. The fact is, I can do a lot more with set, stand, and run than I can with Australopithecus, midi-chlorians, and Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because English packs a lot of information into little tiny words.

Or, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re forced to say yesterday or tomorrow, pretentious or university (two unrelated words), Superman or Professor Xavier. That’s just the way things are.

In his editorial, the Masked Editor uses literature as an example of what can be done with short words – “to be or not to be,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.” But he’s using a double-edged sword and he’s not using it well. Sometimes people write thinigs like this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door–
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Or this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Or this:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

So it goes. I guess some folks know what they’re doing. Neither Churchill, nor Greene, nor the artist formerly known as an editor tell us what a short word is. One syllable? Two? Three is stretching it, I guess.

The point is, Greene, Churchill, and the editor who wasn’t there are correct. Everyone should keep it simple (stupid). They should do that all the time. It’s a good rule to follow. But we should realize that in English our “short and simple” words are often only the former, not the latter. I’m not picking on Greene, who I think is a great journalist (seriously, DuckDuckGo his name, read his articles, watch his TED Talks). It’s just that his article made me think of this idea, which has probably been brewing for a while.

By the way, here are the first three sentences of The Gathering Storm, the first book in a series which won Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature:

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into a reality.

And then there’s the rest of Hamlet’s speech that our friendly neighborhood editor used as an example. Guess what, there’s disagreement over its meaning. So much for short words. Shakespeare does away with them after the first line. To wit:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come…

[Update: Mr. Greene was kind enough to drop by and leave a link to his reply, which you can find here.]