Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Want to Write Well? Get Anglo-Saxon with It.

 

William Zinsser writes about the Latin, Norman, and Anglo-Saxon version of some words. When you need some information you can simply ask. If you want to be fancy you can pose a question. But only the truly sophisticated will interrogate.

Boris below observes the genius behind Churchill’s style is in moving between these different variations at the right moment. When Churchill really wants to grab the audience and make a memorable point he goes to the pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that they know. Zinsser would approve as he advises us to cut out the clutter and get simple with word usage to produce great writing.

Anyone else think Boris would make a wonderful MasterClass course on rhetoric?

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There are 28 comments.

  1. Jules PA Member

    Like. Like. Like.

    • #1
    • January 5, 2018, at 3:32 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  2. JoelB Member

    Sounds like an interesting technique to consider. Could some of President Trump’s success come from this plain-speaking approach?

    • #2
    • January 5, 2018, at 3:38 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  3. Arahant Member

    Did someone call for an Anglo-Saxon?

    • #3
    • January 5, 2018, at 3:40 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  4. Terry Mott Member

    They say brevity is the soul of wit.

    A quote I’ve internalized and often revisit (probably not enough) is from Mark Twain, who supposedly apologized to an editor for the length of a submitted essay, saying that if he’d had more time to complete it, it would have been shorter.

    • #4
    • January 5, 2018, at 4:16 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  5. Percival Thatcher

    I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English; it is un-American; it is French.

    — Mark Twain

    • #5
    • January 5, 2018, at 4:18 PM PST
    • 13 likes
  6. Terry Mott Member

    It occurs to me, in light of my smack down on the recent Mona Charon post thread, that brevity is also the soul of snark.

    Maybe I should approach this idea with more moderation. Or less bourbon. One of the two.

    • #6
    • January 5, 2018, at 4:21 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    Mr. Johnson speaks of the anaphora, but one of the primary Anglo-Saxon tools for binding lines together was alliteration. Of course, in a sense, the repetition of anaphora does provide some alliteration, but it’s a rhetorical tool that also helps create the visceral effect. One sees it commonly in headlines, especially sports headlines: Sox Slaughter Seattle. Churchill gets a bit of this effect in:

    …never have so many owed so much to so few.

    The “so many” and “so much” ties the whole together even more.

    • #7
    • January 5, 2018, at 4:45 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  8. Fritz Member

    Took an Old English/Anglo-Saxon course in college. Towards the end, we read Beowulf in the original. Like the Homeric poems, it is thought this poem represented an entirely oral tradition, and we were taught that many of the phrases that repeated themselves (like Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn”) were mnemonic devices to aid the reciter in remembering the lines.

    Of course, we know-it-all’s walked around campus hailing each other with the poem’s opening:

    “Hwaet!!”

    which as I recall means something akin to “Listen up!!” or even more venacular, “Yo!”

    • #8
    • January 5, 2018, at 4:55 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  9. Arahant Member

    Fritz (View Comment):
    Took an Old English/Anglo-Saxon course in college.

    I think it’s risible (note the use of the non-Anglo-Saxon term) that there is a Wikipedia in Anglo-Saxon.

    • #9
    • January 5, 2018, at 5:06 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  10. Fritz Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Fritz (View Comment):
    Took an Old English/Anglo-Saxon course in college.

    I think it’s risible (note the use of the non-Anglo-Saxon term) that there is a Wikipedia in Anglo-Saxon.

    That’s impressive!

    Google Translator would be fun too if it offered Anglo-Saxon as a choice.

    • #10
    • January 5, 2018, at 5:11 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. Percival Thatcher

    A big part of it is the rhythm, however achieved.

    • #11
    • January 5, 2018, at 5:43 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  12. Bereket Kelile Member
    Bereket Kelile Post author

    JoelB (View Comment):
    Sounds like an interesting technique to consider. Could some of President Trump’s success come from this plain-speaking approach?

    I definitely think people underestimate his talent in this regard. Make America Great Again is simple and memorable. And then there’s the use of the superlatives.

    • #12
    • January 5, 2018, at 5:54 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  13. Percival Thatcher

    Bereket Kelile (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):
    Sounds like an interesting technique to consider. Could some of President Trump’s success come from this plain-speaking approach?

    I definitely think people underestimate his talent in this regard. Make America Great Again is simple and memorable. And then there’s the use of the superlatives.

    I’ve never been particularly impressed by his off-the-cuff performances. Some people repeat themselves for emphasis. Trump sounds like he’s waiting for his brain to catch up with his mouth.

    • #13
    • January 5, 2018, at 6:00 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  14. Jules PA Member

    Fritz (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Fritz (View Comment):
    Took an Old English/Anglo-Saxon course in college.

    I think it’s risible (note the use of the non-Anglo-Saxon term) that there is a Wikipedia in Anglo-Saxon.

    That’s impressive!

    Google Translator would be fun too if it offered Anglo-Saxon as a choice.

    Cool.

    • #14
    • January 5, 2018, at 8:58 PM PST
    • 1 like
  15. ShawnB Inactive

    Where I have the time to write and rewrite, the last step I take is, where I can, swapping all words that came into English from the Old French, Middle French, and Latin for Anglo-Saxon or Old English words, and as many po-ly-syl-la-bic words for those with only one. Some terms of art, though, have to stay. It takes time and work to find just the right word or string of words, but almost everything reads better in the end.

    • #15
    • January 6, 2018, at 10:25 AM PST
    • 8 likes
  16. EJHill Podcaster

    Peter will tell you that when you write for someone else you have to be able to internalize their rhythms and intonations to be successful. Who could do this for Churchill better than Churchill? He was an outstanding writer and understood the difference between words meant to be read and words meant to be spoken.

    He would have made a helluva an actor.

    • #16
    • January 6, 2018, at 12:45 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  17. CurtWilson Lincoln

    It is fascinating that 1000-year-old additions to the language are still viscerally felt as not quite authentic, even (especially?) by those who don’t know the origins of these words.

    I recently learned of an even older distinction in the English language, courtesy of the linguist John McWhorter. He points out that no other Germanic language has the “meaningless do” in questions and negations (e.g. I do not think so… Do you think so?)

    This structure is Celtic, and it preceded the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. It took many centuries for it to start to appear in written English. It was considered a feature of “vulgar” English, spoken by the low-class Celts and those who hung out with them.

    There seems to be a remnant of that today. If you hear someone say, “I think not!”, or “I haven’t any idea!”, you would expect that person to be from the upper class. But I think most would regard that person as “putting on airs”.

    Do you agree?

    • #17
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:19 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    CurtWilson (View Comment):
    Do you agree?

    I think not.

    • #18
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:22 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  19. Judge Mental Member

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Did someone call for an Anglo-Saxon?

    New pen names:

    WrongAngles
    Yakety Sax

    • #19
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:30 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  20. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Did someone call for an Anglo-Saxon?

    New pen names:

    WrongAngles
    Yakety Sax

    I’ve always got my real name.

    • #20
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:33 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  21. Percival Thatcher

    EJHill (View Comment):
    He would have made a helluva an actor.

    Thank you. That was great.

    • #21
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:44 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. Ansonia Member

    “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

    Why is “human conflict” a better choice than “war” for what Churchill wanted to convey ? I think the reason is that “human conflict” includes battles on the physical plane but implies there are other types of battles and includes those as well. There’s almost, about “human conflict”, the echo of Saint Paul talking about “powers and principalities”.

    • #22
    • January 6, 2018, at 1:49 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. Jules PA Member

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

    Why is “human conflict” a better choice than “war” for what Churchill wanted to convey ? I think the reason is that “human conflict” includes battles on the physical plane but implies there are other types of battles and includes those as well. There’s almost, about “human conflict”, the echo of Saint Paul talking about “powers and principalities”.

    I agree, war is quite specific, but human conflict is a larger sphere that includes war and things that are re resolved before war.

    • #23
    • January 6, 2018, at 2:01 PM PST
    • 1 like
  24. Ansonia Member

    Churchill’s inspired way of speaking is only possible, I think, when a talented person is very steeped in the history, literature, and religious literature and sentiment of a culture.

    A talented person can learn all the rhetorical devices Boris Johnson recognizes in Churchill’s speeches without being anywhere as near to being able to move people with words as he would be if he gained a deeper historical and cultural understanding of the people whose language he wants to speak.

    • #24
    • January 6, 2018, at 2:29 PM PST
    • 1 like
  25. EJHill Podcaster

    What I learned from Churchill: Never be afraid to repeat a phrase for dramatic effect. I had an English teacher that would have eviscerated me for it. I always imaged her correcting The Great Man thusly:

    Winston – Do not be so repetitive. If you must list places where you believe one should fight separate them with commas, such as “We shall fight on the beaches, landing grounds, towns, etc.”

    Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

    • #25
    • January 6, 2018, at 2:56 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  26. JoelB Member

    CurtWilson (View Comment): If you hear someone say, “I think not!”, or “I haven’t any idea!”, you would expect that person to be from the upper class. But I think most would regard that person as “putting on airs”.Do you agree?

    A few years ago, I was struck by the use of “I haven’t any” by the children in the original Little Rascals films. I believe that this form was much more common then. Even the Three Stooges used it if I recall correctly.

    • #26
    • January 7, 2018, at 11:00 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  27. ShawnB Inactive

    CurtWilson (View Comment):
    This structure is Celtic, and it preceded the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain. It took many centuries for it to start to appear in written English. It was considered a feature of “vulgar” English, spoken by the low-class Celts and those who hung out with them.

    I am willing to take the Celtic, but not the French.

    • #27
    • January 8, 2018, at 7:27 PM PST
    • 1 like
  28. Arahant Member

    ShawnB (View Comment):
    I am willing to take the Celtic, but not the French.

    But the French weren’t really the French. They were Vikings.

    • #28
    • January 8, 2018, at 9:03 PM PST
    • Like