I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impeccable grounds of The Newt in Somerset. Owned by Koos Bekker (AKA Canniest Investor In Tech), the Newt is a wonder to wander, not least because of its attention to every last detail. Yes, the big draws include a reconstructed Roman villa and grand gardens, but my eye was caught by the scatterings of little infopanels around and about. Miniature marvels of communication, such as this one:
In a handful of well-chosen words, it takes you from when the surrounding beech trees were planted to what was once a Somerset Boxing Day treat, by way of the chatting, digging, steaming, weeping badgers who live in the sets beneath your feet.
Jugged badger may no longer be on the menu, but characterful communication is never out of fashion.
Guilty of poor writing…
This one goes out to anyone who has ever been left scratching their heads or indeed tearing their hair out trying to decipher lawyer-speak – hello everyone…
Each year, the Ig Nobel awards honour research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”. Sure enough, I chuckled to see that this year’s literature prize went to a team who analysed why legal documents are so impenetrable. Far from conceding that the complexities of law call for similarly complicated language, the team concluded that poor writing was the culprit. They found legal documents guilty of containing “startlingly high proportions of certain difficult-to-process features – including low-frequency jargon, center-embedded clauses, passive voice structures, and non-standard capitalization – relative to nine other baseline genres of written and spoken English”. Pretty damning stuff.
So the next time a lawyer tries to bamboozle you with legalese, politely but firmly ask them to go away and come back with some clear communication.
For less than the price of a Starbucks latte (other brands are available), I bought from a charity shop Beethoven’s Own Words – “a little book,” as the compiler Philip Kruseman describes it, “in which a choice of thoughts and expressions of the greatest among the great tone poets is collected”:
This little book is indeed packed full of choice thoughts and expressions. Here’s my favourite:
“Good song has been my guide; I have tried to write as fluently as possible, and I dare to answer for this before the judgement seat of healthy intelligence and good taste.”
An encouragement to make our words sing, from the great master of organised sound.
In episode 1 of the BBC’s Great Poets In Their Own Words, UCL Professor of English John Mullan notes that “It was often said that WH Auden had this peculiar gift of making ordinary words sound terribly poetic by putting them into echoing patterns of sounds.”
This strikes me as a neat reminder of how putting ordinary words together in ways that sound right and ring true is at the heart of all forms of good writing. The meaning of our words is, of course, critical, but so too is the music. Indeed, the music reinforces the meaning. On this front, it’s not just the sound of each individual word that counts, but the patterns they create when we combine them – not just the single note but the rhythm and melody of the piece as a whole.
So whether it’s a famous poem or everyday business communication, it’s always good to write not just with your head and your heart but also with your ears – to create patterns that echo positively.
The readiness of the English language to welcome with open arms mighty fine new words is one of its great strengths, and family slang, or familect, is one of the more entertaining and inventive sources.
This particular strain of lovable language finds a happy home in Kitchen Table Lingo – an ideal summer book to dip into while “bibbly” (tipsy) or “incatacipated” (when you are trapped beneath a cat asleep on your lap). To add to the pot, here’s a homespun neologism courtesy of my daughter: “blinky” – when a great idea suddenly appears in your head, making your eyes widen in wonder.
If you have any familect blinkies of your own, please feel free to share – the more the merrier!
Long live stories…
In his regular Radio 4 feature on Just One Thing, Michael Mosely touches on the remarkable power of stories. “Reading something which has characters and a story seems to deliver a remarkable number of benefits to your brain, your wellbeing and your life,” says Michael.
Research shows that reading stories increases the blood flow across the entire brain. It can also increase the connectivity in your brain, and create new neural pathways. It enhances empathy. It reduces pain. It protects against dementia. All in all, it’s a veritable miracle food for our minds, our bodies and our souls.
But that’s not all – it could even help us live longer. Yale University research found that those who read fiction for 30 minutes a day lived on average 23 months longer than those who did not.
So stories really are a powerful remedy, which is why we could all do a lot worse than take a daily dose of a good novel. For healthier, happier, longer lives – long live stories.
Paris Pernod parties…
Currently at the door of my local bookshop is a brilliant idea, Blind Date with a Book:
For £8 (c$10) a pop, you can choose from a selection of identically brown-paper-packaged mystery books, with the help of a few enticing descriptions. Half the fun is in detecting a book you know and love – such as the one that lies beneath ‘Expatriates, Spanish bullfights, Paris Pernod parties, Jealousies, Classic’. (I won’t spoil the experience by revealing the title, but it is indeed a classic.) The other half is in not having a clue what book it is – ‘Cosmic collision, Princess, Dynamite, Love and lust, Quirky’ anyone?
Whether it’s an old favourite or a new read – whichever book you choose, enjoy your date!
A good story…
“All the best facts, figures and arguments in the world can’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story,” says Richard Powers, in his sylvan epic The Overstory.
So what counts as a good story?
For me, it’s a story about something that matters, well-told. Substance and song. A story that holds and rewards our attention, and changes us for the better along the way.
Meaning, colour, and music…
In a Norwich charity shop not so long ago I picked up, for £2.99 (c$4), a copy of Herbert J. C. Grierson’s Rhetoric and English Composition. Published back in 1944, it is full of insights that still hold true. Insights such as this one, in the chapter on The Choice of Words: “To the poet and orator [words] are living things, the winged messengers of their thoughts and feelings, and like the birds they have three properties – body or meaning, colour, and music.”
Alongside their dictionary definition (their meaning), words also have colour “the associations which gather around a word by long usage”, and music – their melody and rhythm. Taking all three together, every word has the potential to make us think, and feel, and hear different things.
This is powerful stuff. In choosing the right words to tell our stories, we can play with all three properties – meaning and colour and music – to appeal to the head and the heart and the ears. So our stories not only convey clearly, but feel right and sound good, too.
The story is mightier…
In these dark days, a ray of light from Yuval Noah Harari:
“Nations are ultimately built on stories. Each passing day adds more stories that Ukrainians will tell not only in the dark days ahead, but in the decades and generations to come. The president who refused to flee the capital, telling the US that he needs ammunition, not a ride; the soldiers from Snake Island who told a Russian warship to “go fuck yourself”; the civilians who tried to stop Russian tanks by sitting in their path. This is the stuff nations are built from. In the long run, these stories count for more than tanks.”
In the end, the story is mightier than the sword.
Small change; big difference…
A tasty reminder of the power of words comes courtesy of research carried out by the World Resources Institute (WRI) into the big difference just a small change on a restaurant menu can make to what we choose to order.
Researchers tested responses to different sustainability-themed messages on menus. Messages such as: “Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference.” Diners who read this message chose a vegetarian dish 25% of the time – over twice the rate of diners who were not shown the message. This is good news because, as the WRI points out: “Food-production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods contributing double the amount of emissions to plant-based foods. Shifting consumer demand away from animal-based foods toward more plant-based alternatives is critical for reducing food-related climate change impacts, as well as resource use and biodiversity loss.” Imagine the difference if everyone everywhere swapped their beef burger for a bean burrito.
Of course, it’s not just on menus that a few well chosen words can have a big positive impact. (And indeed, vice versa.) Something for us all to bear in mind as we tell our stories – select wisely to tell well.
Pilipala, papillon, farfalla, mariposa, babushka, borboleta, pulelehua, húdié – butterfly.
Welsh, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Hawaiian, Chinese, English – lovable in any language.
Wherever in the world you are, here’s to a tip-top 2022 for one and all.