Playing Scrabble ruined me for impressive words. Starting out, you go for the long, sophisticated, creative sounding words – always seeking that holy grail of using seven tiles in one fell swoop of legerdemain. And you lose every time you play players with any sense.
There are two secrets to winning at Scrabble – use the double and triple word spaces, and bog down the board with tiny, irritating words that don’t give your opponents any foothold.
After a while, impressive words stop impressing.
When I was recently going through poems from the last year, I noticed something. My tastes have changed from what they once were. By natural inclination, I am loquacious. I like precision. I tend to employ the words people don’t use in conversation. I even tip my hat to jargon – enough to create the impression of familiarity with a field. It is a not-really-conscious childish motivation, but it is present. A leftover bad habit from my pseudo-academic work. These are my words; I don’t much alter them for different audiences. But the effect can be pretentious, pompous even.
Now I use simple words. Short words. Words without decoration. And I like them better; they are more true.
I teach English to speakers of other languages sometimes. They always have the idea that English has fewer words than their primary language. In fact the reverse is true, but their observation is valid. Most native English speakers use only a small fraction of our words. We understand far more; our reading vocabulary is considerably broader; but we think and speak every day in the same few words. Those words also tend to have meanings that vary with their contexts.
I still read many works of people who use decorative and nuanced words; I still love beautiful minds. (Not the movie – that scared the shit out of me, but the genuine thing.) But I have come to love simple words, short words, real words. I have come to rely on them almost exclusively.
This is a matter of taste, not choice; my taste has changed. But if I were to try to explain it, I would say this:
Most of the poems I write have abstract ideas, feelings, senses, forbodings – things difficult to clothe in words. The harder it is to put a thing into words, the more important small, simple words become. The problem with nuance and subtlety is that the abstract stays abstract. Without meaning to, I express what I intend in ways that are clear only to me.
Simple words have familiarity; they are like old friends, the furniture in your house, the trees in your backyard. You know them as well as know yourself. If you can put an idea in those terms, that idea is yours. If a hearer can hear an idea in those terms, the hearer is more likely to own it.
Every word you use summons all its history and associations – both to you and to your hearers. Small, simple, plain, short words have so many associations that they tend to cancel and become universal. What you give up in precision, you make up for in genuine communication.
It is harder to lie in simple words. You simply utter a falsehood – easy enough. But you lose ‘plausible deniability’. Most of the games we play in relationships depend on provoking a response while maintaining the appearance of innocence. If you convey malice in simple terms, you can’t deny it. (You can, but no one will believe you.) Most times, nuance and subtlety and decoration are disguises for shit. They offer ways to say both no and yes. They dissemble.
Ultimately, simple words are peaceful. They are uncomplicated. It’s not about simple living, but about clarity. They have their own substance, and they have their own stillness. They are as reassuring as breaths and heartbeats.