In 1066 the French Normans invaded England and changed the way English works forever.
The natives in Great Britain spoke a language called Old English, which is unintelligible to Modern English speakers. The Normans brought French along with them and French overtook English as the language of the ruling class in England.
Over the next three centuries Old English and French mixed together. They spawned a new language called Middle English, which is what Shakespeare spoke and is an early form of Modern English.
So why should you care?
Because knowing the difference between the newer French words and Old English words makes you a better writer.
As a general rule, short words are Old English words. Longer ones are French-based.
When you write you need to form a connection with the reader. Big French words make it seem like you’re speaking in a Norman court. But the short, old words you use all the time make communication less formal and more personal.
Take these two sentences:
- Elena drove to the mall and got a soda.
- Ms. Johnson entered her vehicle, traveled to the mall, exited her vehicle and purchased a fountain beverage.
The second one sounds weird here, but it wouldn’t on a police report. There are still times today when using big words is best – like technical documents, legal proceedings and academia.
Which were all of the institutions that the Normans brought with them.
We learn to read and write in school, so we’re in the habit of using big academic words. Bad idea. The shorter the word, the clearer the meaning.
All my favorite writers hate big words. (Which is probably why they’re my favorite writers). Winston Churchill said, “short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.” Notice he didn’t say “elect to use diminutive phrasing and when possible, archaic forms thereof.”
David Oglivy said that no one with a college degree should be allowed to write consumer copy. Years of formal academic training has wrecked most college grads’ writing style. I agree with this. It’s a constant struggle to use the shortest, clearest words in my writing.
So throw off the chains of your Norman conquerors and be free. Connect with the masses using Old English words!
*More info: Here’s a list of French-based words in English to get you started. Avoid them!