English is a combination of two languages.
The Anglo-Saxon words come from Northern Germany, and its Latin ones come from France. Most words come in Saxon and Latinate versions. “See” is the Saxon counterpart to the Latin word: “perceive.” Most Saxon words will have one-syllable, while most Latin ones will have two or three. If you want to communicate clearly, default to the shorter Saxon words.
Saxon words are also more concrete, which makes them easier to picture. Consider the difference between light (Saxon) and illumination (Latinate), or burn (Saxon) and incinerate (Latinate).
The advice to use Saxon words echoes some famous writing wisdom. Winston Churchill once said: “Short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all.” Similarly, the Fowler Brothers once wrote: “People prefer concrete words to abstract ones, familiar words to unfamiliar ones, short words to long ones, and Saxon words to Latin ones.”
The words sound different too. Saxon words have hard sounds like ck or the hard g. Meanwhile, Latin words are softer, flowery, and more musical. That means you should use Saxon when you want to cuss at somebody and Latin ones when you want to seduce them. Ward Farnsworth highlighted the differences in his book, Classical English Style: “And as you would expect, forbidden words – ‘swear words’ – tend to be Saxon. The most famous taboo word in the language is a good example, being short (a ‘four-letter’ word) and ending with the familiar hard sound; its precise etymology is unknown but probably Germanic. The Latinate equivalent – copulate – is longer, sounds softer, takes suffixes, seems more distant from the act, and can be said in polite company.”
Saxon words may be simpler, but that doesn’t mean you should only use them. Latin words are more nuanced and precise than Saxon ones, which makes it a more elegant tongue. You can use both like a musician changes the rhythm of their music depending on what they want the listener to feel. Saxon words are as catchy as a high BPM song, while Latin ones slow down the track so the listener can swing through the melody. Since they’re so sharp, Saxon words are used for direct arguments while Latin ones imply nuance and ask the reader to slow down to contemplate what’s being said.
If you’re struggling to remember the difference, remember “short for Saxon, long for Latin.”
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