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Barry Humphries' Fatal Flaw: Words

Tracey James - Friday, August 16, 2019

Barry Humphries' Fatal Flaw - Words

I recently read Barry Humphries’ autobiography 'My Life as Me'. It’s a rollicking and spell-binding, if you can ignore the fatal flaw - convoluted, obscure words.  I nearly gave up. Discover how the right words matter - especially in marketing - and 6 easy easy ways to choose the right ones.   

Do you know these? 

(Image above: credit The Guardian). I thought I had a reasonable vocabulary, but still had an online dictionary open the whole time. It was driving me nuts. 

Here are examples of words Humphries lobbed in during the first few chapters, at a rate of one every page or two. How many do you know?

  • Inimical – hostile or antagonistic
  • Humunculus - a small human or humanoid
  • Pullulate - to breed or spread quickly
  • Ventripotent – having a large belly or girth
  • Amanuensis – a literary or artistic assistant
  • Impetiginous – having pimples
  • Extirpate - to remove or eradicate.

With Humphries, I found the same words popping up more than once throughout the book. 

It seemed he had no simple way to describe the simplest of concepts - like a shadowy hallway (he used 'tenebrous') and the words he used gave no hint of meaning. In fact, many sounded like other, more common words, throwing me right off the track.     

What was the point? 

Why would Humphries risk driving his audience away with words, when there are simpler, clearer equivalents?

Does he just want to show off his prodigious intellect and vocabulary? Or put his readers in their places, prostrate at the feet of a master wordsmith? I suspect both.

Perhaps he sees himself as the Vladimir Nabokov of his generation. Nabokov was famous for using obscure words, and even made up some of his own, which Humphries would doubtless call 'neologisms' (new words). 

Humphries writes, ‘I have indulged a lifelong taste for the sesquipedalian, that unerring giveaway of the Provincial.’

With this admission, he’s lobbed in another unintelligible term, this one meaning a fascination with clunky, obscure words. (Oh, really?) He’s also having a lend of us, since a 'provincial' lacks urban polish or refinement. Humphries clearly lacks neither.

Specificity vs simplicity

Good writing is clear, precise and compact - especially in marketing.

The use of convoluted structures and obscure words has no place here. You want your readers to get the point quickly, without the tedious legwork that literary critics seem to swoon over. You want your audience to focus on the message, not on your impressive vocab. It's about them, not how clever you are. 

That said, there are some more convoluted, less-known words that describe more precisely what simpler words cannot. Here are two examples:

  • Verisimilitude – the semblance of authenticity.
  • Onomatopoeia – using words that sound like what they mean (like whoosh).

Sometimes a foreign word is briefer and more specific than an English one:

  • Zeitgeist – the general ideas, beliefs or feelings that mark a period in history.
  • Bravado – blustering, swaggering conduct. 

The 6 Rules of good writing

These are some of the lessons about good writing that we learned the hard way, over decades of writing:   

1. Talk straight

Don’t mince words. Be direct.

Accept that you might offend a few people, but be true to yourself. Express an opinion or take a stand. You can’t be thought-provoking or controversial or make an impact if you try to please everyone. Thought leaders are fearless and speak with conviction, passion and with no fear. 

2. Keep it simple

Use short sentences and simple words.

Remember less is more. Cut out unnecessary words and keep sentence structure simple. Every sentence must inform or entertain. If you think that using obscure words and technical jargon gives your writing authority, think again. It won't; it's like burying your readers in treacle.   

3. Toss out the clichés

Clichés are tired writing too; using them is like spraying the reader with chloroform.

Consider this: ‘We had to think outside the box and make a paradigm shift to come up with a win-win for everyone at the end of the day, without leaving money on the table. That took 110% effort.’ Yawn.

4. Use short words 

You want your words to engage your audience.

In particular, use simple Anglo-Saxon words; they’re much shorter and stronger than Latin or Greek ones. Think about the impact of 'crash' versus 'collision', 'cut out' versus 'eliminate' (or extirpate!) and 'show' versus 'demonstrate'.     

As George Orwell said in Politics and the English Language: 'Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.'  Good advice, I think.

5. Show, don’t tell

You want to evoke feelings and cause people to take action. So, use imagery and appeal to all of their senses.

You don't have to be flowery or long-winded, either. Take author, Graham Greene. Said to be 'born edited', he wrote with such precision, his books were exceptionally thin.

Here's how he describes a small apartment in 'The Honorary Consul': ‘… there was hardly space for a bed, a dressing table, two chairs, a basin and a douche. You had to fight your way between them as though they were passengers in a crowded subway.’

No Latin, no Greek no obscure words - but a crystal clear image.

6. Be precise  

The great Sol Stein talks about the meaning and resonance of words, and the respect they show for the reader's intelligence.

These may not be evident in airport novels or chicklit but they're critical in marketing, especially in crowded marketplaces. In an elevator pitch, for instance, every word counts - precisely because you don't have time to use many. 

Summing up

Good writing raises questions and provokes the reader to think, so don't be prescriptive, be provocative.

The rules are simple but it takes practice to apply them.

One last rule is this: you write what you read, so read well-written books, fiction or non-fiction. Graham Green and Ernest Hemingway are a good start. (Kim Brebach's suggestions, see below.)

‘It wasn't by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’ Ernest Hemingway

Additional Reading

Kim Brebach is the true writer at Technoledge.

He's written fiction and non-fiction and read countless books and articles on effective writing. He's my coach and here are some of his shortcuts. 

Orwell’s six rules for Writing
The Obscure Words of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita
Obscure words that everybody needs to know


Tracey James
Chief Executive

I used to be a Biotech researcher but got sick of acid holes in my clothing. After switching to selling the equipment I'd used in the lab, I discovered marketing and loved it. I've been marketing technologies ever since. I still love it.


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