More than enough

Using more words may not always be the best way forward

In business, efficiency is measured by dividing the individual output by the standard output rate and multiplying the outcome. Energy efficiency rises when power goes down while result goes up. The efficiency of a country’s economy is a function of its GDP per hour worked.

Drive and result.

Language is subject to the rules of efficiency, too. It’s not just because both speech and writing are an expense of human energy. A language’s energy-efficiency is more or less built-in. The emphasis placed by the ancient Greeks on rhetoric and political language led to serious reflections on language efficiency by the leading philosophers of the period.

It was the Greeks who identified and conceptualised the risk of redundancy in language, which they called pleonasm. The word may sound foreign and slighly technical to our modern ears, but for the ancient Greeks, it simply meant ‘more than enough’.

As a word, pleonasm has an illustrious ancestry, its Greek source ‘pleon’ meaning ‘more’ going back to the Proto-Indo-European root *pele-, ‘to fill’. Overfill. As a concept, the pleonasm is a curious case of alerting against abundance in a culture of scarcity. More is not always better, and this simple insight provided the basis for an understanding of language as an efficient tool. Perhaps not unlike a bronze sword which may look lethal but may in fact be blunt.

The art of rhetoric was born when speakers understood the importance of language economy. Just because you have words at your disposal doesn’t mean you have to use them all.

The Greeks and then the Latin grammarians and rhetoricians further developed the idea of redundancy . Achieve the greatest effect with as few words as possible. Avoid circumlocution, ‘talking around’ or the more colourful ‘beating around the bush’; always go for the kill instead of taking the detour of periphrasis, another going around. For what else is a detour than a superfluous, and therefore inefficient, way of reaching destination, when reaching it as soon as possible is what matters most.

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