When I was around 13 and still in junior high school, we had a discussion at the dinner table in our home in Massachusetts one Sunday afternoon that was intellectually stimulating, as was often the case.
My older brother was telling us an anecdote about Mr. Tighe, his English teacher at Canton High School.
A girl student had written a paper for Mr. Tighe in which she used the archaic word yclept, meaning named or called. It was used by Chaucer and Milton.
Mr. Tighe ridiculed her for this. He observed that the simplest and clearest word was always desirable.
Being only 13 and not savvy, I was quite surprised to hear this. I spoke up at the dinner table, and said, “I thought that writers were supposed to use big words.”
“Oh no,” my father, Alan W. Smith — who, besides being a musician, was superbly articulate — said, “you should always use the plainest, simplest word.”
I never forgot this discussion and remark. It was a revelation to me, the start of learning how to write well.
It was a salutary “lesson.”
— Roger W. Smith
Ella Rutledge, March 1, 2016
Well, it seems to me there were two lessons being learned in that lesson. The first, as you point out, is the lesson of using plain language–straight out of Strunk & White. The second, is what the user of “yclept” no doubt learned: her teacher ridiculed her, which probably made her feel that she could not write. Why not praise rather than ridicule a thirteen-year-old for emulating Chaucer?
Roger W. Smith, March 1, 2016
Thanks much for your comment, Ella. This incident occurred when I was in junior high school. Two years later, I had the same teacher for English. I had him for two years straight, plus one summer school course.
He was an outstanding teacher, a nice man, a wise one. But he did have a mean streak that showed at times. He could be critical, harsh and sarcastic, and was a tough grader. Nevertheless, I respected him greatly. He taught me so much about writing, critical reading, critical analysis, and critical thinking — but, above all, writing.
You have a point. Knowing this teacher, I bet he was hard on the girl and embarrassed her. No doubt, she was trying to impress him and perhaps get a good grade by using a fancy word.
But I think sometimes as a teacher you have to be caustic to get your point across. Yes, straight out of Strunk and White: “keep it simple stupid.” He was right to make this point and he made it stick. So that I never forgot it.