So you think English is the international language of business, do you?
Well, I beg to differ: the language I hear most often in the workplace is mediaeval Latin.
Do I specialise in business writing for Cistercian monks?
Nope, I mostly work with bankers, private equity professionals and marketing types.
So how come? A quick history lesson to explain what I mean.
As we all know, in the eleventh century England was conquered by the Normans.
Arrows in eyes. Bayeux Tapestry. Ten sixty-six and all that.
It may have happened a millennium ago, but the defeat at the Battle of Hastings is still exerting its influence on modern business English.
Here’s why. The French-speaking, Latin-writing Normans came to dominate the rarefied world of the court.
Old English, the Germanic language of the conquered Anglo-Saxons, became associated with the illiterate lower classes.
The effects of this two-tier society can still be felt in the linguistic hybrid that is modern English. Look at these word pairs:
Residence and house
Cogitate and think
Assist and help
Sufficient and enough
Prior to and before
The words on the left are all derived from Latin. Notice how they’re not just longer, but also more abstract than their Anglo-Saxon alternatives?
In my experience, eight out of ten business folks prefer the ones on the left.
Long, abstract words make you sound posh and powerful, goes the thinking.
Simple, concrete Anglo-Saxon words make you sound, well, a bit simple.
Take these examples I’ve recently come across:
Latinate original: The transaction was completed on a bilateral basis
Anglo-Saxon alternative: The deal involved two people
Latinate original: We have developed a proprietary connectivity solution
Anglo-Saxon alternative: We’ve built an in-house web tool
Latinate original: We are a provider of fluid transfer solutions
Anglo-Saxon alternative: We make hoses
To the ears of a professional copywriter, the Anglo-Saxon versions make you sound honest. Clear. Down-to-earth. The sort of person people want to do business with.
The Latinate versions make you sound pretentious. Untrustworthy. Dissembling. And, actually, a bit insecure about your social status.
But it can be a struggle to get business types to see it that way.
It doesn’t help that all the rude words in English come from Anglo-Saxon. As far as I know, not one of the following has ever been banned from our screens:
Facilitator of intercourse with a maternal parent
Female reproductive tract
Individual who assimilates the male member into the buccal cavity
I bet you can think of the Anglo-Saxon alternatives for these expressions, all of which you weren’t allowed to say on TV in the days before Deadwood.
If you can’t, check out the routine by US comedian George Carlin, a man with a poet’s ear for the rhythms of English.
(Warning: probably not office appropriate. If you work with people who feel uncomfortable using the word “house” instead of “residence”, they really don’t want to hear the translation for “individual who assimilates the male member into the buccal cavity”.)
You might not share Carlin’s relish for rolling Anglo-Saxonisms around his tongue, but you can’t deny the power of his words. Words that just lose a little something in translation.
So for punchier business writing, make like George and excise the excreta from your vocabulary.
Or, as those of us who like to speak English would say it: cut the crap.