Tag Archives: perissology

perissology

A principle often elucidated, and famously so by such paper deities of prose styling as Strunk and White and George Orwell, is that in any circumstance where the total word count of an expression may be surplus to requirement, it is best to strive to diminish the quantity of lexemes so as to achieve a cogent, coherent, cohesive conciseness. This is to say, in other words, and to cut the long short: perish perissology.

Perish perissology! What is this judgment of perissology, this hard choice between the lush love of words and the militant wisdom of brevity? Is this the phrase that launched a thousand cuts?

Well… yes. Perissology is also known as garrulousness, verbal diarrhea, prolixity, verbosity… To be fair, though, it is focused more particularly on the phrase level: saying “in spite of the fact that” in place of “although,” or “at this point in time” in place of “now,” or “when everything is considered” or “in the final analysis” or “at the end of the day” in place of, hmm, nothing at all, really.

Editors, of course (“of course”! Now there’s a phrase that can often be left out), are possessed of perisscopes to spot these and deal mercilessly with them. Yes, perisscopes is a word I just made up, but perissology does have the same peri as in periscope: it’s Greek περί ‘round about’ derived into περισσός (perissos) ‘superfluous, redundant’ plus, of course (oh, allow me my twitches), the ology that comes from λόγος (logos) ‘word’. So it means ‘superfluous speech’ or ‘roundabout words’.

Whichdoes actually have a Latin counterpart, come to think of it: circumlocution. That isn’t used in exactly the same sense as perissology these days, but there’s plenty of overlap.

So, yes, perish perissology. But it doesn’t automatically follow from that that, as Orwell wrote, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” (and as has been pointed out, that dictum doesn’t strictly heed itself); there are some cases where adding a few extra words will help the meaning to be clearer and require less effort in the reading. And while “Omit needless words” seems almost trivially true, it leaves the judgement of “needless” up to the writer or editor. Should I konmari the prose, and cut a word out if it doesn’t give me a spark of joy? But what if I’m paid by the word and every extra dime I get is another spark of joy? Or what if I just love frolicking in a lush word garden? And how short could some classic books become if the trimming were overenthusiastic? (Proust: “I dipped a madeleine into my tea and it reminded me of my whole life. The end.”)

Of course (eeps) we don’t mean that you should remove words that add enjoyment and flavour, do we. Perissology is use of words that really don’t add a damn thing: not insight, not clarity, not ease of reading, not enjoyment. So “perish perissology” means “don’t be tedious.” This doesn’t resolve the issue universally, however; different people find different things tedious. So how about this: Know your audience and try not to waste their time.

And, after all is said and done, if you just wanted that last sentence, without all the information in between, well… I guess you’re not my audience. Heh heh.