Low-Frequency Words, High-Frequency Success: Subverting the Anti-Snob Culture

Low-Frequency Words, High-Frequency Success: Subverting the Anti-Snob Culture
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What a title! Instantly this author has utilised multiple layers of irony as, in a flourish of post-modern sentiment so convoluted it is only achievable by a child of the ‘90s, he derides snobbery, though does it in the most conceited language imaginable. And now he’s referring to himself in the third person, too! Oh boy, I am angry!

Wait, that’s not all? He’s still going? I can’t believe this is going on for two paragraphs. It wasn’t even just an intro. God I hope this article stops being so pretentious or I’m going to stop reading!

Cutting the Crap

People really don’t like overly pretentious language. It’s really annoying. I could offer you a few reasons. Perhaps they offend Paul Grice’s fourth conversational maxim. Maybe it is evolutionarily dangerous, obfuscating vital information which could have helped the reader survive, thus triggering the same Darwinian anger as when someone eats more than their fair share of the mammoth (or Doritos for that matter).

But whatever the reason, when people choose to write like asses, readers disengage, get angry and – heaven forfend for us content marketers – bounce from the site, in search of text that’s more… on fleek.

This is all as it should be. It is part of the anti-snob culture which has won many victories, from dismantling the rigid class system to making a three-piece suit a life choice, not straight-jacketing work-place necessity.

Anti-snobbery is great. But now I want to make a humble plea: please don’t hate people who use low frequency words. These aren’t the snobs, asses and wafflers you are looking for.

Short and Sweet

Sure, sometimes using a low-frequency word can cause more harm than good. Who wants to have to consult a dictionary (app) to find out the meaning of a sentence which turns out to be banal and boring anyway?

George Orwell famously said never use a long word when a short one will do. People love flaunting this rule in the face of people who flout it. But often, people interpret the rule incorrectly.

From a logical point of view the rule is the following conditional: (if) short word will do (then) use short word. What the rule doesn’t say is that we should tailor our expression around the use of short words. That is, sometimes the condition is not met: sometimes a short word won’t do. And to deliberately limit what you can communicate due to some commitment to using words that are common is to make another mistake – another which Orwell pointed out, this time via 1984’s terrifying Newspeak.

Beef, Gems, Words: Things That Are Better Rare

Another of Orwell’s rules is to avoid tired metaphors, figures of speech, and repetitive imagery. Clichés, of course, do little to excite the imagination. But the same thing just as well applies to individual words! Rare words cause a chain reaction of new ideas and images in the mind where common ones only relight the same familiar fires.

This is the joy of a new word. You hear it, you notice it, you learn what it means, and when you use it for the first time, you have done something you’ve never done before. You have communicated a new nuance, been able to express something in a way previously blocked to you.

Keep the Fire Burning

We’re so used to being anti-snobs. We chastise people when they reject things merely on the ground of them being popular, easy to find or easily acquired.

But if we direct these same anti-snob sentiments towards people whenever they use a word that, though uncommon, they think will excite your mind in a new way, then we will simply lose all these great words to the ages. And sure, you can always just google “rare old words” and then decide to use them, but then that really would be deserving of serious rebuke.

The Tipping Point

The truth is, there is a tipping point where words are used so infrequently, they pass out of the living language, and using them always raises too much of an eyebrow, causes too much of a distraction, for their meaning to have the right effect.

This is what has happened to hame, blastment and obstreperous. There may still be hope for obeisance, pinion and ostentiferous.

So if sends you into a paroxysm whenever someone calls a window an embrasure, or an island an eyot, let this consideration ossify your tolerance: they are merely trying to stop our amazing language becoming penurious, deprived and impoverished.

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