Words: Servants Or Masters?

Rudyard Kipling wrote – ‘I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.’


When he wrote these words his intention was to alert the reader to the possibilities of words and where they could take us as writers.

Words are the golden keys to unlock meaning within any text or story. Yet they are, after all, only signposts to interpret understanding – but they can also become jailers imprisoning us in the mesh of ideas we were trying to unravel for ourselves and our readers.

‘Words are architecture not decoration within a story’ – wrote Ernest Hemingway. This muscular approach to prose led to some of the most telling descriptions ever written. His use of grammar seemed so stark and unsettling at first to the reader but within the context of storytelling this brevity matched the uncompromising ruggedness of the scenery in which he set most of his tales. This also helped to contrast the internal struggles of his characters as they battled to make sense of the human condition we call life.

So we should as writers quite literally choose our words very carefully. Not for their complexity but for their merit and above all pertinence when applied to storytelling.

Our own English language, so long in the making, is rich in its diversity and sources with several different words for the same things. It can,if we let it, lead us into archaic blind alleys and twisted mazes of misunderstanding. The ‘Campaign for Plain English’ as its name implies campaigned for many years to remove the blight of jargon and legalese from official documents. Those everyday forms which plagued the ordinary man and turned every legal contract into a minefield of complexity and misunderstanding.

Which only goes to prove that convoluted and fractious use of vocabulary, however well intended, can flummox even the best ‘legal eagles’ as well as any Oxford Don. English is rich in its diversity and deserves full rein to describe the range of human behaviour.

Our own literary genius – William Shakespeare added some five hundred new words and phrases to our vocabulary from which to draw on.

Yet Winston Churchill, who set himself the task of learning a new word every day, said – ‘we should strive never to use three words where one will do and to choose those that are simple and direct in their meaning, for they will always reveal the plain unvarnished truth.’

I am sure my own choice of words will flummox some critics of this piece but in the end I too am seduced by the richness of our language. I fear I will continuously fall into many word traps of my own devising unless I use my editor’s blue pen more ‘rigorously’ – sorry – ‘strictly’ and more often.

Chris Owen