Using Just the Right Words vs. Keeping it Simple

I am a big fan of Seth Godin’s, and I read his blog post every morning. (In fact, his habit of posting every day is what inspired me to do the same.) His posts are meant to be inspirational, to challenge the reader to do his or her best work.

Well the other day, Seth had a blog titled, Shields Up, in which he suggests we “not tell our friends about our nascent idea, our notion, the area we hope to explore next.” The reason is that it will be extinguished by people who mean well, people who are trying to protect us from heartache.

Instead, he suggests that people “Trot out a make-believe idea instead, a pretend Potemkin Village of a project, let them dump all over that one instead.”

I think I have at least an average vocabulary and knowledge base, but I must admit I was stumped by a couple of words/phrases in Seth’s post.

While I could guess at what nascent meant from the way it was used, I still opted to look it up. Here was the meaning that I found:

nascentbeginning to exist or develop

which was close enough to the way I interpreted its meaning in the sentence (I substituted the word new for nascent when reading Seth’s post).

The second phrase was much more puzzling, Potemkin Village. I had no idea what that meant.

But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to find its meaning in less than five seconds:

Potemkin Villagea pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby fact or condition.

The term comes from stories of a fake portable village, built by Grigory Potemkin  along the banks of the Dnieper River to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. Some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated.

So apparently the use of a phrase meant to hide a shabby fact or condition is actually based on a shabby fact…

Anyway, after reading Seth’s blog and educating myself about some of his language, a few days later I came across a story about President Obama’s efforts to control gun violence. The story started as follows:

There’s something Sisyphean in the way President Obama is forced by circumstance to address the nation in the face of horrific gun violence.

I was fairly certain I got the Sisyphean reference, but to be sure I once again headed to Google. From Wikipedia:

In Greek mythology Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action for eternity. Used as an adjective, it is meant to convey an endless and unavailing labor or task.


That is what I thought it meant, but I also wondered how many people may not have gotten the reference, and if not, how many took the time to look it up.

And the same could be said for Potemkin Village – how many people knew what that phrase actually meant, or took the time to find out.

So while those words – Potemkin Village and Sisyphean – may have been the perfect words for the authors to use to express what they were trying to say, how successful were they in doing so if many people do not get what the words mean?

As luck would have it, I came across another article today titled, Why you should keep your work simple. The opening paragraph expressed what I was thinking after reading the two articles above.

You’re wrong if you think that making something complicated makes it better. You’re wrong if you think that longer documents are more insightful. You’re wrong (and elitist) if you think using complicated language makes you smarter.

The author goes on to note that you’re also wrong if you think simplicity is cheap and cheerful, yet many people have this misguided idea that for something to be of value, it has to be big, complicated, long, and full of a lot of 10 dollar words. Simple just seems cheap to some creatives, so they try and add value through complications. Writers think like this all the time.

The author, Jon Westenberg, concludes as follows:

Simple is beautiful, even if only because it can be understood. Simple is beautiful because it can express what you’re trying to do, say, and show without adding a lot of worthless frills to it. Simple is beautiful because simple allows you to communicate.

One of the first things I noticed when I read Westenberg’s article was that I did not have to look up any of the words, so I guess he practices what he preaches.

But it also got me thinking about the choices authors must make between using what they believe is the perfect word or phrase, and the value of keeping things simple. I guess part of the answer is knowing your audience, but I’m still not sure that gives authors the license to use 10 dollar words if the thought can be expressed in a more simple way.

I think Einstein had it right when he said:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

I couldn’t acquiesce more…

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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