Will long and complex words make you look smarter? Meet the people who think that short words will make us dumb.
Faces have been slammed into keyboards this weekend. Anger, fear, pessimism for the future of our species. The reason? An open source text editor.
I’m not smart enough to be more than a secret fan of Randall Munroe’s XKCD comics, but as I read through a preview of his book Thing Explainer, I quite quickly understood rocket science (literally), the Mars Rover, and the Saturn Five rocket. This sudden clarity — and humor — might have been linked to the fact that he only used the 1,000 most common words in English.
It’s easy to bullshit
The 1,000 words rule mashed well with a tip I got from a former coworker about talking to people above your own pay grade.
If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself
— Albert Einstein
It’s actually unclear if Einstein said this, or if the original used “six-year-old,” “bartender,” or “your grand mother.” You get all these versions if you Google long enough, but the gist is one that I think is true; you’ll learn more about the thing you’re trying to explain when you make an effort saying it the simplest way possible.
Long words and worn-down business metaphors often cover up a simpler message: “I don’t actually know,” and we often don’t see it ourselves
George Orwell agrees. In Politics and the English Language, the 1984 author hammers home the point of avoiding big words and bad habits.
Never use a long word when a short one will do.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
— George Orwell
Orwell argues that these words are too abstract, not carrying enough meaning, not making our writing arresting. Or, to put it in modern terms, bullshit. And bullshit is an unfair use of a anyone’s time.
The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.
— Alberto Brandolini
An editor that makes it hard to write bullshit
I read and write a lot of bullshit — you may even have detected some of it right here — and most of it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes the long, stuffy words and worn down business metaphors cover up a simpler message: “I don’t actually know, can you figure it out for me?” and we often don’t even realize this ourselves.
What if we had to write as simple as we talk to a six-year-old? What if our emails could be as easy and fun to read as Randall Munroe’s descriptions of the Red World space car and the Upgoer Five? To play with that idea, I made a simple text editor that doesn’t allow words that are not among the 1,000 most common ones.
Do I expect myself and other people to only use this editor going forward? No. That would be “outright barbarous.”
I open sourced my new text editor and put it on Github for anyone to use and modify. Not much happened. Then, a few months later, Malthe wrote a tweet about it.
It quickly got a ton of retweets, but the most interesting thing was what people had to say about it. Some were supportive:
There were constructive ideas for use in real life:
Had to look that one up. Oulipo was a French writer movement in the 1960s seeking to come up with new kinds of works by making up rules like “don’t use e, a, and i throughout an entire novel.”
“Wait a minute”
We’re in a big room somewhere deep inside the internet. People come and go. A screenshot of an editor on a big screen.
“Wait a minute,” one guy turns to the guy next to him:
The other guy thinks for a bit, looks confused and sad at the same time:
From the other end of the room, a young man’s voice:
A man mumbles:
What seems to be a close friend chimes in:
Chip is lucky enough to not deal with what those types —
“But…in the future everyone will be stupid!” one guy mumbles, and shouts:
Another person thinks they’re just not worth talking to:
A guy talks about a certain movement that has its own hashtag:
— but there’s a competing movement:
The repressive regime of the text editor
Pointing at her with a roll of tinfoil chimes in:
While I was watching this unfold, I got disappointed that no one had made the connection to Donald Trump. His language is simple and gets across to everyone, voters and haters alike.
Here’s a typical answer given by Trump. Of 220 words, 172 are one-syllables words, as the Youtuber “Nerd Writer” demonstrates in this video.
I wanted to add some Trump. The viral tweet links to my Experiments Tumblr, so I added this to the post about the text editor:
This one may have made it into the speechwriter office in Trump Tower.
A few minutes later, the tweets began to reflect that.
One even thought 1,000 words was too much for Trump:
To make the Trump circle complete, I trained the editor’s algorithm with a few of Trump’s speeches and added a Trump mode. Maybe some of the other candidates could find it useful.
The language selector in the bottom right corner lets you go into Trump mode
This is where we get back to where we started — 1984 and George Orwell. Although this time, the point is the opposite of Orwell’s; simpler language is bad. People seem to want complexity and abstract words. If they don’t get it, the crowd screams, a 6.9 megabytes Mac app could make 1984 a reality.
Insist on simple
I love all these tweets and the people behind for how much they care. I’m also a little puzzled that a simple text editor can make them furious. I mean, don’t they watch the news? But most of all, I like to think that a few thousand people got the chance to think about how they write, and make a choice.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a message that is too hard to figure out, do everyone a favor and insist on a simpler version. Maybe one that only uses the 1,000 most common words.