The Guy Who Tried to Edit English

John Patrick Thomas
John Patrick Thomas / John Patrick Thomas

How many words are there in English? It depends on how you count them—do run and running count as separate words? What about run [a footrace] and run [for office]? A good conservative estimate is 250,000. The English lexicon is not only huge, it’s also full of words that mean practically the same thing. Get, obtain, procure, acquire. Shine, gleam, glow, shimmer, sparkle. Do we really need them all?

That was the thinking of an eccentric British writer named C.K. Ogden, who in the 1930s proposed a new form of English with a vocabulary of just 850 words. He called the project Basic English, and he believed it would not only make the language more efficient and easier to learn but also help us think more clearly. If you trained yourself to say “get off a boat” instead of “disembark” or “take away” instead of “remove,” you would learn to say what you really meant, he claimed, and therefore be less likely to be manipulated by “press, politics, and pulpit.”

Ogden arrived at his 850-word list through experimentation, rephrasing texts over and over until he was satisfied. (No Z words made the cut.) The words he ultimately included were not necessarily the shortest or most concrete (representative, apparatus, and observation were included), and plenty of seemingly basic words did not make the list at all (eat, want, forget). Because any verbal idea could be expressed with a small number of “operators”—words like come, go, get, take, have, make, be, and do—Ogden argued that most verbs were unnecessary. In Basic English, eat is “have a meal.” Want is “have a desire.” Forget is “go from memory.” In the Basic English bible, God does not say “be fruitful and multiply,” he says “be fertile and have increase.” The idea was that Basic English would be not a primitive form of English, but a maximally efficient one.

Winston Churchill was a fan of the concept as a way to get foreigners to speak English, and he encouraged the BBC to use it. He also tried to persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to promote it. Roosevelt, who expressed mild interest, joked that Churchill’s famous speech about offering his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to his country wouldn’t have been so stirring if he “had been able to offer the British people only blood, work, eye water, and face water, which I understand is the best that Basic English can do with five famous words.”

Despite attention from world leaders, Basic English never got very far off the drawing board. As it turns out, culling your vocabulary doesn’t exactly make for crystalline prose. Here is how the Gettysburg Address comes out in Basic English:

Seven and eighty years have gone by from the day when our fathers gave to this land a new nation—a nation which came to birth in the thought that all men are free, a nation given up to the idea that all men are equal.

Ogden himself didn’t actually use Basic English—even his books about it are filled with a zoo of verbs and abstract nouns. Churchill didn’t use it either, and he had no problem wielding words with more than enough force and clarity. When seeking to express ourselves, we don’t necessarily need fewer words; we need the right words. So it’s to our benefit to have a large supply on hand, even if it means we also spend a lot of time obfuscating, dissembling, stonewalling, and pussyfooting around.