This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

How to look clever: a rant.

It's taken science a couple of hundred years, but it's finally caught up:

'I do not understand you.' says Catherine in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
'Then we are on very unequal terms,' says Henry 'for I understand you perfectly well.' 
'Me? yes - I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.'
'Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language!'

Henry is charmed, amused and rather thrilled by Catherine's answer, but it's only relatively recently that science has analysed 'speaking [well, strictly speaking writing] well' and proved the great truth behind Miss Austen's lovers' exchange. 

In 2005 Daniel M Oppenheim produced a paper at Princeton University, USA, which he has mischievously entitled 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.'

It seems that most undergraduates deliberately make the language of their essays complicated. They do this (they admit) to make themselves seem more intelligent.

Daniel M Oppenheimer's paper was designed to find out whether it worked.

The answer was a resounding NO. When texts were made more complicated readers tended to assume the writer was of lower intelligence, even though the text was saying exactly the same thing.

What fun that Miss Austen's wry joke now has an official scientific basis.

It doesn't only apply to undergraduates: it explains why people don't have too high an opinion of government officials and politicians, too, doesn't it? 

Word To Use Today: intelligible. This word comes from the Latin intellegibilis, from intellegere, to understand.

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