Word origins: when Latin just won’t do

Having battled with English, German, French and Latin at school, learning Spanish as an adult was an absolute joy. It’s one of the Romanic languages, with strong Latin roots but also a heavy Arabic influence. It’s incredibly logical and almost 100% phonetic which means that once you learn the rules, you can get reading straight away.

English is described as Germanic but it’s fair to say it’s a melting pot of many other languages due to successive invasions from abroad and our more recent imperialistic history. Although this makes English more irregular and more challenging to learn, it also makes it a language rich with meaning and nuance. Half the fun of writing can be choosing which word out of ten possibilities is most appropriate for your audience. The tricky part is to rein in your creative tendencies when plain speaking (or typing) is required. And it’s often said that when this is the case, Germanic and/or Old English words are most appropriate.

When to rein in your creative tendencies

For example, one expression that often falls foul of the editor’s pen is “prior to” with its origins in the Latin “prae” meaning “before”. And there we have the reason that “prior to” often has to go—the Germanic “before” (vor) is more widely understood and is just one word.

Of course, it all depends on your audience. If you’re writing a white paper, opinion piece or article, “prior to” may be fine. If you’re writing a safety manual, however, it needs to be understood by as many readers as possible. In that case, I would opt for “before” every time.

Sometimes, the Latin word is just too… well… grandiose (Latin, grandis). When was the last time you traversed the road for example? The word “traverse” comes from the French “travers”, which itself comes from the Latin “transversum” meaning to lie across. Interestingly, the word “cross” also came from Latin (crux), but long before the Normans brought “traverse”.

Choosing the best alternatives

As someone who loves the richness of our language I’m certainly not advocating ridding ourselves of those more elaborate words; that would be a tragedy. But when I write for business and consumer audiences, I always ask myself, “Which alternative would be understood and appreciated by the greater number of readers?”

As the Plain English Campaign says, “It’s not about banning new words, killing off long words or promoting completely perfect grammar.” It’s about reaching your audience using language they will understand.

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