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Word Choice | What Churchill Meant

June 23, 2021

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) said: “Short words are best, and old words are best of all.” What did he mean by this piece of advice? He must have been on to something. After all, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world by far. Perhaps 600,000 words. The nearest other languages are German and French with some 200,000 words.

The reason for this number of words is quite simpe. Modern English developed from Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), then added vocabulary from French and Latin and other languages.

By some estimates, Old Germanic words (like Old English) make up about 25% of English words, but many of them are our simple and vivid words such as “cow.” (Latin is “bovine.”)

French came in after 1066 with the Norman Invasion. The Normans spoke French in the court. French makes up about 28% of modern English.

Latin came into the language because it was the language of science, technology, and religion. It makes up about 28%. Other languages make up the rest.

Consequently, modern English has a huge number of synonyms. We could, in a sense, choose to write in French, Latin, or Old English;  that is, by choosing to write with words originally from languages other than Old English. “Begin” is Old English, but “commence” is French.

Churchill’s advice, then, comes from this historical reality. When we choose the short, old words in English, we are automatically choosing simplicity, and thus, clarity.

The so-called “Plain English” movement (yes, there is such a thing) rejects “foreign” words because they are often more complex and imageless. The law is a good example of a profession that is filled with “foreign words.” Tort, voir dire, habeas corpus, prima facie, inter alia, mens rea.

As we all realize, “legalese” is hard to read!

To write plainly and clearly, then, is to use vocabulary from Old English. And it just so happens that Old English supplies some fascinating-sounding words such as tithe, betroth, banshee, forswear, shriveled, flighty, trumpery, and touchstone.

But additionally, English speakers just can’t do without basic words such as about and around, own, a, one, simple, ask, after, empty, baker, warrior, wound, glory, bless, use, day, life, beginning, gift, battle, forest, heart, courage, shield, many, hatred, enough, path, sea, shadow, treasure, story, sword, fruit, miracle, anger.

As we suspected, Churchill knew what he was talking about!