We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Now I know that Remembrance Day has been and gone for this year, but I have been thinking about Churchill’s words since seeing a BBC4 programme about great speeches, hosted by Simon Armitage. We’d recorded it, so I’m sorry, I don’t know when exactly it was broadcast.
In the programme Armitage spoke to an expert in giving presentations. He was talking about the power of simple words. He made the point that had Churchill said something like ‘there may be skirmishes in coastal regions’ rather than ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ the speech would lose 90% of its power.
And in Melvyn Bragg’s book, The Adventure of English, he also uses this speech to illustrate how words from Old English still make up the core of our language. In fact only one word from the quote above does not come from Old English – and that word is ‘surrender’ which, ironically enough, comes to us from the French.
While the written word is of course quite different to the spoken word, there’s much to think about here for writers. Using simple, old English words makes text not only easier to read, but also can make it far more powerful. Right now I’m re-reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca which is a wonderful example of simple words used elegantly and perfectly.
So the next time I fret that I can’t think of a clever word, I’ll stop, take a deep breath, and find a nice simple one to use instead.