From E.C. Bentley’s Trent’s Last Case
But that wouldn’t be a very good opening for a letter of strictly formal, not to say sinister, character. I have got as far as “Dear Mr. Marlowe.” What comes next?’
‘I am sending you a manuscript,’ she prompted, ‘which I thought you might like to see.’
‘Do you realize,’ he said, ‘that in that sentence there are only two words of more than one syllable? This letter is meant to impress, not to put him at his ease. We must have long words.’
‘I don’t see why,’ she answered. ‘I know it is usual, but why is it? I have had a great many letters from lawyers and business people, and they always begin, “with reference to our communication”, or some such mouthful, and go on like that all the way through. Yet when I see them they don’t talk like that. It seems ridiculous to me.’
‘It is not at all ridiculous to them.’ Trent laid aside the pen with an appearance of relief and rose to his feet. ‘Let me explain. A people like our own, not very fond of using its mind, gets on in the ordinary way with a very small and simple vocabulary. Long words are abnormal, and like everything else that is abnormal, they are either very funny or tremendously solemn. Take the phrase “intelligent anticipation”, for instance. If such a phrase had been used in any other country in Europe, it would not have attracted the slightest attention. With us it has become a proverb; we all grin when we hear it in a speech or read it in a leading article; it is considered to be one of the best things ever said. Why? Just because it consists of two long words. The idea expressed is as commonplace as cold mutton. Then there’s “terminological inexactitude”. How we all roared, and are still roaring, at that! And the whole of the joke is that the words are long. It’s just the same when we want to be very serious; we mark it by turning to long words. When a solicitor can begin a sentence with, “pursuant to the instructions communicated to our representative,” or some such gibberish, he feels that he is earning his six-and-eightpence. Don’t laugh! It is perfectly true. Now Continentals haven’t got that feeling. They are always bothering about ideas, and the result is that every shopkeeper or peasant has a vocabulary in daily use that is simply Greek to the vast majority of Britons. I remember some time ago I was dining with a friend of mine who is a Paris cabman. We had dinner at a dirty little restaurant opposite the central post office, a place where all the clients were cabmen or porters. Conversation was general, and it struck me that a London cabman would have felt a little out of his depth. Words like “functionary” and “unforgettable” and “exterminate” and “independence” hurtled across the table every instant. And these were just ordinary, vulgar, jolly, red-faced cabmen.