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.
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.
His Dictionary takes on the task of finding words for feelings which, until now, have not been pinned down. Words like ‘nighthawk’ – “a recurring thought that only seems to strike you late at night”. ‘Gnasche’ – the intense desire to bite into the forearm of someone you love. ‘Witherwill’ – the longing to be free of responsibility. And his big hit, ‘sonder’ – “the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own”.
In so doing, he joins that mighty fine tradition of making up new words for the English language – from Shakespeare through to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. As John Koenig says, “The English language is a magnificent sponge.” Indeed, the degree to which English happily opens its arms to neologisms is one of the things that helps make it so enduring and enjoyable.
So here’s to my lovable mother tongue, and the people who continue to enrich it.
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations… They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries…” So begins the only known recording of Virginia Woolf, who goes on to explore why it is so difficult “to create beauty… to tell the truth…” with the “half-a-million words all in alphabetical order” at our disposal.
Easy or not, and our current culture’s love of image notwithstanding, words are arguably our primary tool for telling the truth and creating beauty (ideally at the same time). As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says, “Humans have a special power to connect with and regulate each other: words. In my research lab, we run experiments to demonstrate this power of words. Our participants lie still in a brain scanner and listen to evocative descriptions of different situations. One is about walking into your childhood home and being smothered in hugs and smiles. Another is about awakening to your buzzing alarm clock and finding a sweet note from your significant other. As they listen, we see increased activity in brain regions that control heart rate, breathing, metabolism and the immune system. Yes, the same brain regions that process language also help to run your body budget. Words have power over your biology – your brain wiring guarantees it.”
Given the undoubted power of words, what can we do to up our chances of using them wisely and well? Virginia Woolf has some good advice at the end of her talk: “words…like us to think, and they like us to feel, before we use them…they like us to pause…”
So the next time you have to use one or more of those half-a-million plus wonderful words in our lovable language, take a moment. Listen for the echoes. Look for the associations. Think about what you feel. Do your best to tell your truth beautifully.
As close to music as I can get is how I like to write.
As Oliver Reichenstein points out, “Being fully immersed in writing is like composing and playing music while we drum up our perceptions into letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs.” In his post on Music in Writing, he shares Martin Amis’s take: “What you’re trying to do is: Be faithful to your perceptions, and transmit them as faithfully as you can… You know I just say these sentences again and again in my head, until they sound right. And there is no objective reason why they sound right. They just sound right to me. So it’s euphony, sometimes it’s harshness you want. But it’s… it’s just matching up the perception with the words… in a kind of semi-musical way.”
Beyond the sheer pleasure of listening to the melody, beat and tone of your words as you write, why write this way? Grace Nichols nails it: “The rhythm and musicality of poetry is more direct in its appeal to the human heart and spirit.” In short, musical writing is more effective.
So, write with your ears, and let your sentences sing.
On a recent trip to LA, I was held captive in a quiet corner of The Broad by William Kentridge’s brilliant Second-Hand Reading. In six or so minutes of animated words, images and music, the work takes you on a magical journey which is both substantial and light-touched, heavy-souled and uplifting. I happily watched it again and again, each time sensing something new in the looping lyrical storytelling.
In a TEDx talk, William Kentridge describes how “ideas come into the studio and meet charcoal, paper, ink…” This fluid, handmade “thinking in material” is core to his art. And so, in turn, is the task “to find the less good idea. One knows the danger of confident men with their good ideas, and the damage this does every time. Give yourself over to the logic of the material… The main idea gets pushed to the side and other things emerge from the process of working… the less good ideas… This is key in the studio – to allow a space for this to emerge… to allow the studio to be a safe space for stupidity…”
So for anyone struck dumb by the terrors of the blank page, or indeed convinced of the perfection of their opening line, take a leaf out of Mr Kentridge’s book. Start writing. Be stupid. Goof about a bit. Get your hands inky. The less good ideas will emerge, and who knows – they may well prove to be great.
In Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness, I came across a “devoted band that called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Their talk was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole bunch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”
Strikes me that the qualities the Eldorado Explorers lack are the very ones that lie at the heart of what goes into good business: hardihood, audacity, courage, foresight and serious intention. These five are a handy guide and inspiration for all of us trying to do worthwhile work in the world.
Better a good business than a sordid buccaneer. Every time.
Sorting through various family papers, I came across a letter the poet P J Kavanagh had written to my mum back in 1980. In it he says that “what distinguishes verse from prose is a tune. Not necessarily an obvious one but some sort of pleasing noise nevertheless… If you re-read one of your favourite poems, with this in mind, you will discover that a large part of what makes you like it and remember it is the noise it makes.”
Robert Macfarlane picks up the theme while bringing prose into poetry’s soundworld: “We think a lot about rhythm in poetry but we don’t talk about it so much in prose. But I’ve always felt that rhythm in language speaks to the backbone, to the back of the scalp. It’s what makes the head tingle if you get it right, and it does a form of communication that propositional language doesn’t. And so when I’m writing prose, as much as I can I work on the rhythms. And the very last thing I do with any book, and I’ve just done it with 130,000 words of Underland, is I speak it back out to myself, on my own.”
So whether it’s 130,000 words or 130 – make your words not only ring true but sing, too.
On a recent trip to LA I was struck by the sheer brilliance not only of the sunshine but also of much of the communication. Our American friends seem to revel in clear lively English. Whether that’s shedding light on age-old tar pits…
or discouraging cars from driving down dusty ol’ cowboy towns…
It’s a confidence and playfulness in words we can all enjoy and draw inspiration from.
Never Knowingly Undersold. These “three funny sounding words”, as John Lewis calls them in their current crop of print ads, sum up the retailer’s unchanging price promise to customers. It’s a promise they’ve stuck to since 1925 and one they maintain they’ll always honour. Indeed why wouldn’t they – good value never goes out of fashion.
But are they really that funny sounding? There’s certainly a distinctive character to them, which is an undoubted plus. A more straightforward trio such as Always Good Value would also be more forgettable.
This poetic threesome rubs shoulders with other equally arresting triumvirates such as manual moon skills, tonic twig town, insist gold level. Although randomly generated, like astrologers’ predictions, they invite you to attach to them much meaning. This is a happy by-product of the core ambition of the business: to create the simplest way to communicate location by giving every 3m x 3m square of the planet its own unique trio of words. So for example, 10 Downing Street has slurs this shark for its three, while the White House has improving enjoy buddy. Read into those what you will.
According to What3Words, 75% of the world’s population has no address, but now we can all let everyone else know where we are no matter where in the world that is. A new take on triangulation employing our eminently lovable language – like all great breakthroughs, it’s both brilliantly simple and simply brilliant.
By way of an end of year sign-off, recommended reading for the new year: the delightful Lost In Translation, An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. It’s a treasure trove of lovable language – from commuovere (to be moved to tears by a story) to komorebi (the sunlight that filters through the leaves of the trees).
As author Ella Frances Sanders says in her introduction: “In our highly connected and communicative world, we have more ways than ever to express ourselves, to tell others how we feel, and to explain the importance or insignificance of our days. The speed and frequency of our exchanges leave just enough room for misunderstandings, though, and now perhaps more than ever before, what we actually mean to say gets lost in translation. The ability to communicate more frequently and faster hasn’t eliminated the potential for leaving gaps between meaning and interpretation, and emotions and intentions are misread all too often. The words in this book may be answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask, and perhaps some you did. They might pinpoint emotions and experiences that seemed elusive and indescribable, or they may cause you to remember a person you’d long forgotten. If you take something away from this book other than some brilliant conversation starters, let it be the realisation (or affirmation) that you are human, that you are fundamentally, intrinsically bound to every single person on the planet with language and with feelings. As much as we like to differentiate ourselves, to feel like individuals and rave on about expression and freedom and the experiences that are unique to each one of us, we are all made of the same stuff. We laugh and cry in much the same way, we learn words and then forget them, we meet people from places and cultures different from our own and yet somehow we understand the lives they are living. Language wraps its understanding and punctuation around us all, tempting us to cross boundaries and helping us to comprehend the impossibly difficult questions that life relentlessly throws at us.”
Wishing you a happy and prosperous 2016, one and all.
Driving back to London along the M1 after a wonderful week in Wales climbing mountains, canoeing lakes and chomping chips, we slowed down along a sustained stretch of 50mph roadworks.
Nothing new there for anyone familiar with the UK’s motorway network, except for the unusually characterful traffic signs. Gone were the standard blunt and bland commands to keep your speed down. In their place, conversational messages: “Nobody likes a tailgater”, “Let’s all get home safely”, “Our Dad works here”…
With their refreshingly friendly tone, they certainly caught the eye and according to a Highways England spokesman have been developed with the help of psychologists “to improve the customer experience through roadworks”. I’m not sure it’s about improving the customer experience so much as making safety messages clearer and more compelling. On that score, the ones I saw worked well. Nobody does like a tailgater, for example – not even the tailgater themselves, when they stop and think about how dumb and dangerous they have been.
But then came a message that stood out by virtue of its worrying ambiguity: “You may not always see us”. Did it mean that the road workers were not always there? We know that already – how many times have you driven along a stretch of motorway roadworks with not a worker in sight! Or did it mean that we were not allowed always to see the road workers? A rather rude mind-your-own-business message. Or did it mean that sometimes the road workers were difficult to see. Yes, but that in turn raised another question: Why aren’t road workers more visible? Worse, this sign was on the central reservation, rather than on the left by the hard shoulder – the natural home for such signs. It was all rather distracting and disconcerting – the last thing you want when driving along a motorway – and made me hanker for a much simpler old-style “drive carefully”.
So, when revamping motorway messages or indeed any other communication, it always pays to pay attention to keeping clarity while adding character.
On reading Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks, his father observed that he was “rewilding the language” with words ancient and local in danger of being lost forever. Words like slomp: to walk heavily, noisily (Essex). And droxy: decayed wood (Cotswolds). Eminently lovable words as rare and rich as truffles under English oak.
“This book has been coming for as long as I’ve been writing,” says Macfarlane. “I have been collecting these words for a decade or more, in the same way you might pick up pebbles on the beach. It’s been a long time in the walking and the writing.”
Good to see France’s culture minister Fleur Pellerin advocating greater acceptance of foreign words into the traditionally insular French language. “French is not in danger and my responsibility as minister is not to put up useless barriers against other languages but to give all our citizens the means to make it live on… Certain languages, like English today and Italian in the past, have shown themselves particularly generous in offering French hundreds of new words.”
To support les mots justes from all corners of the linguistic globe – this is quite a volte-face for the home of the Académie Française. But it’s a wise and welcome one, for in languages as in all forms of human exchange – from stocks and shares to stanzas and stories – protectionism is rarely the best long-term strategy.
In an article exploring the heavily analysed utterances of central bankers, CNBC’s UK business editor Helia Ebrahimi highlights the importance and trickiness of “making words perform the exact meaning one wants”.
Yes, words are slippery eels, especially when it comes to trying to synch what you want to get across with what people understand by what you say. Just what does Mario Draghi mean by “whatever it takes”? The phrase gains different currency as, for example, events in Greece unfold, and these events in turn are open to multiple interpretations.
Meanings, like markets, move. But that does not create a get-out clause for clarity. Helia Ebrahimi quotes former US Fed chairman Alan Greenspan: “If I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” A neat turn of phrase, but one which makes light of always striving to be clear no matter how complex the issues.
After all, a little more clarity back in 2007/8 could well have meant a lot less crisis.
As a lifelong fan of writing things down with pad and pen*, I was heartened to read that this age-old method has the edge over simply tipping and tapping away at a keyboard when it comes to actually thinking about things.
“It turns out that writing involves a completely different process to typing,” says Charles Wallace in the FT. He quotes Daniel J Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada: “Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing… Deeper processing means you are more likely to remember and encode the information… Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory.”
So if it’s not too late, ask Santa to pop a pad and pen into your stocking this festive season.
I prefer not to join the noisy critiquing of the misuse of English in and around business (amply covered by the likes of the FT’s Lucy Kellaway among others). I also have an enduring affection for HP, one of my earliest clients who, I fear, has somewhat lost its Way in the past few years. But given that I had so recently sung the praises of the humble comma, I felt compelled to comment on the company’s strange use of the mark in its current run of UK print ad headlines:
Flex, when in flux. (Flex when in flux would do much better.)
Move, able. (Clever clever nonsense.)
Dream big, data. (I guess HP is talking to companies about big data rather than to data about dreaming big, but that’s not what that comma says.)
These from a campaign which also uses the admirably distinctive and eye-catching words Thwart, Foil, Stymie and Crimp as headlines in other ads.
So come on HP, less of the confusing marks and more of the lovable language.
In 1956, sci-fi horror doyen Richard Matheson wrote a story he called The Shrinking Man. When Hollywood came to make the movie they couldn’t resist mucking with the title: in 1957 The Incredible Shrinking Man was released. It went on to become a cult classic but Mr Matheson was understandably irked by that extra word: “It’s already pretty incredible that a guy is shrinking!” he said. “Why add the adjective?”
A neat reminder to leave out what you don’t need in. Although, on reflection, you could make a case for keeping that “incredible” in as it adds a certain melodic rhythm to the title.
From The Guardian’s In praise of… telegrams: Mark Twain received this telegram from his publisher: NEED 2-PAGE SHORT STORY TWO DAYS. To which he replied: NO CAN DO 2 PAGES TWO DAYS. CAN DO 30 PAGES 2 DAYS. NEED 30 DAYS TO DO 2 PAGES.
As with a fine cognac compared to a run of the mill brandy, it takes time to distill your words well – shorter often takes longer.
Major works are afoot at Free Coordinates HQ, which has resulted in my gaining firsthand experience of ledgers, lifts and other weird and wonderful terms from the language of scaffolding. My initial thoughts were that such jargon was far from necessary for the simple matter of fixing poles and boards together to create platforms to work from. But when you consider the need to erect these platforms quickly and safely by fixing the right poles and boards together in the right order and way, the scaffold-speak begins to make sense.
As Hilaire Belloc says in On, an entertaining series of essays on all kinds of things – in this instance, technical words: “a technical word takes the place of long explanation. If you do not use technical words you have to replace them by clumsy, roundabout phrases. You lose your direct effect.”
Yes, technical terms can be effective shortcut language. Yet the principle, as with spelling out a Three Letter Acronym (TLA) the first time you use it, should be to explain the terms once up front. Just as the scaffolders did when I quizzed them. That way, everyone is free to understand should they be interested, as opposed to being excluded for want of clarification.
I’ve been browsing through another excellent book on writing, inherited from my Dad:
It’s full of great guidance, not least when it comes to the Essential Qualities of Good Style. As Pink and Thomas say, “Style is the expression of personality.” It’s how you get yourself across in your own way, not just clearly but characterfully.
So what goes into a good style? Pink and Thomas identify five “positive qualities which are exhibited by all writing of the highest quality”: clearness, simplicity, strength, idiomatic writing and rhythm and harmony.
From new books to the recently launched Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, it’s good to see that character is increasingly in vogue. But what exactly is character? “It’s personality, it’s energy…at it’s heart, it’s a set of personal values that guide conduct,” says Lord Wilson, Chair of the Centre’s advisory committee, on Radio 4’s PM programme.
Lord Wilson touches on a key characteristic of character – its bias to action. Characters don’t just talk, they do – and in our new age of character the two have to be in synch.
Although characters come in many guises (good and bad), there’s an inherently constructive undercurrent – a positive energy at the heart of character. Strong characters have a clear sense of who they are and of how they contribute, and they have the communication to match. “We’ve become very shy of using very simple, powerful words, like honesty and truth and loyalty,” says Lord Wilson. “Big words like that…to describe values.” Big words or small, it’s worth taking care to use the right ones to communicate our character, so we can bring to life in a clear and compelling way the positive difference we make.
A hundred years on, we’re in a new Age of Character. In our multiconnected early 21st century world, simply talking loud and long no longer cuts it. These days we’re rightly judged not just by our words but by our words and our deeds – by how well we marry the two. Which is why, whether introverts or extroverts or a more nuanced mix, it’s in all our interests to employ clear communication that allows our true character to come through.
The summery sunshine reminds me of a seasonal culinary delight: hydropathic pudding. Hydrowhatic pudding? Hydropathic pudding. That’s summer pudding to you and me. Invented in the 19th century as a none-too appetising-sounding but healthy option for spa-residing poorly people, this delicious fruit-filled concoction was renamed summer pudding at the turn of the 20th. Armed with this appealing new name, it never looked back and today is a modern British classic.
Meanwhile over on Wall Street, Big Lots, the discount retailer, enjoyed a market-beating increase in its stock after changing its ticker from BLI to BIG. According to the FT, academic research shows that stocks whose tickers can be pronounced as a word beat stocks with unpronounceable tickers by a statistically significant margin. As the FT suggests, perhaps that’s why an agribusiness exchange traded fund chose the ticker MOO!
Just goes to show, with clear words and a good name you can go a long long way.