One of my favorite quotes is by Arthur Schopenhauer. In German:
Man gebrauche gewöhnliche Worte und sage ungewöhnliche Dinge.
That could be translated several ways:
Take common words and say uncommon things.
One should take usual words and say unusual things.
Use ordinary words and say extraordinary things.
Doesn’t this say it all, for us writers and storytellers?
PS: This could become a motto for The Hannibal Blog, especially in conjunction with Walt Whitman’s quote and Albert Einstein’s quote:
- Whitman gives us license to let our intellect roam freely without fear of the (inevitable) contradictions we bump into along the way;
- Einstein reminds us to search for the simplicity hiding beneath all that bewildering complexity, (as Alexander the Great and Carl Friedrich Gauss do, too);
- Schopenhauer reminds us to express what we found on Whitman’s journey with words of Einsteinian simplicity.
PPS: Schopenhauer is famous but not widely read anymore. I once had a little Schopenhauer phase. And since I did the work, you shouldn’t have to: All Schopenhauer did was to translate what we would consider Buddhism or Upanishadic Hinduism into German. So now you, too, know Schopenhauer.
PPPS: I can’t help but wonder what feedback my own publisher would have given Schopenhauer apropos of … his author photo!
15 thoughts on “Ordinary words → extraordinary thoughts”
The ant ate the dog.
I can simplify that further:
An ate ate a dog.
I mean, An ant ate a dog.
Atë ate dog-eating ants.
There. I knew you’d understand.
Clearly Schopenhauer was not an academic!
Academics are who I had in mind. Also Powerpoint warriors in suits. Also think tankers. Also….
This Winston Churchill quote sticks on our fridge:
Broadly speaking the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.
But not too many of them, please.
Johnny Grimmond, the editor of our Style Guide, once used that quote by Churchill as the rubric of a Leader (ie, Editorial) written entirely in monosyllabic words.
Several reader letters said, and most of us agreed, that the overall effect was excruciating.
So, yes, but nothing in excess.
The problem with the leader is that at some point it ceased to carry any meaning, In the end it was more like a tongue-twisting exercise.
You’re absolutely right about that. So we can build a hierarchy of “rules” for writers:
1) Have something to say (Johnny actually didn’t), and THEN
2) say it with the simplest, perhaps shortest, most ordinary words you can find.
It’s interesting you used the word actually then. Some superfluous decoration does help the reader.
Thanks. I now know enough about Schopenhauer not to be fooled by the fancy collar. I bet he was wearing yoga shorts. Cropping!
Your post made me think of this exchange:
Faulkner on Hemingway: “He has no courage, has never climbed out on a limb. He has never used a word where the reader might check his usage by a dictionary.”
Hemingway responds: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”