Why the “Shorter Word?”

Why “The Shorter Word”?     

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.
Sir Winston Churchill               

Choosing the Anglo Saxon

artifact--a helmet from the ancient Anglo Saxons

The foundation of the English language is a Germanic language known as Anglo Saxon. But English went on to adopt so many words from other languages that today it is estimated to be  only about 15–20% Anglo Saxon in its vocabulary. So how does one know if a word is Anglo Saxon instead of French, Latin or Greek in origin? Well usually, if you’re choosing between two synonyms, just pick the shorter word. Chances are it will be the Anglo Saxon.

But what difference does it make anyway? Well, some of the best writers in English have leaned heavily on the Anglo Saxon as opposed to words of foreign origin. William Tyndale, for instance, was the first person to translate the Bible into English from the original languages, so his Bible was a trailblazer and his choices were important ones.  For every word of Hebrew or Greek in the Bible, there were usually several words in English from which to choose. Tyndale chose to lean heavily on the more primitive Anglo Saxon (Old English) words as opposed to those English words that were derived from French, Latin or Greek. For instance, Tyndale went with “Let there be light,” and not “Let there be illumination” when he translated Genesis 1.

Also, consider William Shakespeare. Though he employed the largest vocabulary of any writer who has ever lived, language analysts say that the majority of his most famous lines use the leaner and more simple Anglo Saxon. “To be or not to be…”  is a good example. He could have had Hamlet pondering “To exist or not to exist,” or “To continue or not to continue,” but my, what a loss that would have been!

It is true that students need to increase their vocabulary. After all, the goal of using a well chosen word assumes that you know enough words to have choices. However, there are times when using the simpler, scrappier, and more familiar Saxon-based word makes one’s writing more crisp, more pungent. Throwing in your latest vocabulary word may boost your score on the SAT, but don’t forsake the Anglo Saxon. Know when to clear away the riffraff of foreign tongues and fall back on your roots.


A Writing Exercise:

Author and teacher Richard Lederer has his high school students write a brief narrative essay each year with one requirement – no word can be more than one syllable, significantly increasing the percentage of Anglo Saxon being used. Lederer says the results always amaze him and the students themselves. It’s both trickier and more effective than you’d think.  Try it.