I was minding my own business, trolling through Twitter (follow me at @jayshep), when I came across a tweet that caught my attention: a list of (purportedly) the 100 most beautiful words in the English language. (Hat tip to @lmaverick and @jordan_law21.)
I was intrigued. I love language and writing, and I was curious to see how someone could come up with the “most beautiful” words. I clicked through to the list, which was on a website called AlphaDictionary. Turns out the list was compiled by a gentleman named Dr. Goodword, a poet and doctor of linguistics whose real name is Robert Beard. Anyway, I checked out his list of beauty.
And was thoroughly disappointed.
The list is a random collection of words, mostly of French or Latin origin, that exude pomposity and stuffiness. (It’s not even 100 words long; notwithstanding the title, the list goes to 110.) The list could not be more subjective. It is a tossed salad of words that must appeal on some level to the good doctor: how else to explain the inclusion of both cockle and palimpsest? You will never have any reason to use many of the words in the real world: I doubt you will ever describe a friend as being potamophilous (loving rivers) or foudroyant (dazzling).
Besides being words of limited value (for the most part), they are also all polysyllabic (except for lilt and lithe, two of the words that actually belong there). And that brings me to my point:
Lawyers (and apparently, poets and linguistics PhDs) seem to think that the more syllables you use, the smarter you sound. They are wrong. As Churchill said, “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.” (And by old, he meant words of Anglo-Saxon origin instead of French or Latin.) Forgive me, but I’m going to go with Sir Winston over Dr. Longword.
A good writer (which all lawyers should aspire to be) strives to get his or her message across in as few words and syllables as possible, so as to not waste the reader’s time. It’s easy to find fancy, French- or Latin-sounding words to decorate your writing like frosting flowers on a cake. (Which are sickly sweet and empty, if you extend the metaphor.)
It’s much harder to find the right simple words to express your ideas.
Are simple words more beautiful? Decide for yourself. Compare Dr. Goodword’s list with the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of the 100 most common words in the English language. In the latter list, the top 44 words are all one syllable, as are 89 of the top 100. Also, the top 25 verbs are all monosyllables. These are the words without which our beautiful language cannot be written. They radiate beauty in their simplicity.
Lawyers: embrace the short, old words. And ignore the “beautiful” words like niveous (which means “snowy”). (Not that you’d ever need to know that.)
originally published on The Client Revolution