We writers in English are lucky ducks. We almost always have the opportunity to choose between at least two options for a word. We can choose the elevated, elegant word that impresses, or the blunt, pushy word that has power.
Let me give you an example. Two words with the same meaning. The first is fornicate. Its roots are in Latin. It’s a fussy word, old-fashioned, embarrassed by itself. It is a word for those who are more than a little worried by the subject.
Then there’s the other one. The one that got you smacked when you tried it out in the fifth grade. The one with all the power.
That, my friends, is the difference between Latin-based words and the Anglo-Saxon.
Words with power
All the good curse words come from Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes who invaded Roman Britain in the 5th century. They were hairy. They smelled bad. They made good beer. They conquered the most heavily-populated parts of Britain, and brought the character that developed into Englishness with them.
Then in 1066, good old William the Conqueror came over from France, carrying archery, table manners, and euphemism.
This rough marriage birthed the English language in all its glory. French gives English its perversity of spelling, its most delicate shades of meaning, and much of its nuance. Anglo-Saxon gives it muscle.
When you are writing to persuade, go with muscle
Consider these examples:
The language of the Angles gives us face, house, smell, ask, room, wish, and anger.
The language of the French gives us visage, mansion, odor, inquire, chamber, desire, and choler.
Readers of this blog have a perfect right to laugh themselves sick just about now. I suffer from what is called "writerliness." I take pleasure in words. I weigh this one against that looking for the perfect shade of meaning. I take words like "kerfluffle" to heart because I love their sound. And I use more than my share of words that are obscure or unusual.
Do I use these when I write professional copy? I do not.
Advertising and other persuasive copy depends on connection, and to make a connection you must speak directly to the heart of your reader. As the Eisenberg brothers said in Call to Action: Secret Formulas to Improve Online Results, when you’re writing to drive behavior (whether it’s in an ad, a Web page, a sales letter or a shopping cart screen) you have to speak to the heart of the dog in the language of the dog. No matter what kind of dog you’re selling to, the language of the dog is simple and straightforward.
Persuasive copy takes every indulgent tendency to use fancy language and translates it back into Anglo-Saxon . . . or into something that feels Anglo-Saxon. (No, I’m not asking you to pick up a copy of A History of English Words, although if you’re as geeky as I am you will be tempted.)
If you doubt me, pick up a copy of David Ogilvy’s brilliant Ogilvy on Advertising and read his ads for Rolls-Royce. Elegant? Undeniably. But most of the words Ogilvy chose to convey that elegance were muscular, sinewy, and pure Anglo-Saxon.
When in doubt, choose the word that is short, punchy, and powerful.
Take a pass through your copy and look for words like fornicate. Then replace them with the other one.