The Changing Meanings of Concision

29 November 2016 | By Sign Salad

This letter is longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter. So wrote Blaise Pascal to a friend, more than three hundred years ago. The witticism could easily be transplanted from our own century, an age rife with micropoems and bumper ads, listicles and tweet fiction. Brevity sits solidly at the heart of today’s verbal and visual culture— so much so that it is worth asking why, exactly, this is the case. What are the cultural meanings of concision, which allow it to permeate our rituals of consumption and communication so thoroughly?

Of course, concision has long had a place in the rhetorical conventions of the West. Polonius’ oft-appropriated quip – ‘brevity is the soul of wit’— reflects more deeply-rooted traditions: in as early as 5 B.C., Isocrateans were already praising the virtues of snappy and pointed speech.[1] But if concision has always signaled intelligence, this association has only strengthened alongside the ballooning plenitude of postmodern life. Bogged down with pluralism and pastiche, the world now values brevity as never before. We sense intelligence in a person’s ability to draw a single flash of insight—curate a brisk anecdote— from the ever-growing slush-pile of facts and figures around us. Concision has become the sign of selectiveness, of an ability to wade through a text-rich world and surface clutching small, shiny gems of meaning.


This is especially apparent in advertising, where marketers increasingly favour the short and succinct. Minimalist ads are experiencing a heyday of sorts, popping up en-mass on social media and tube station walls alike. The average British person now sees over 3,500 ads a day: with such an abundance of white-noise, is it any surprise that we find intelligence in a pitch whittled down to its clean, bright bones — to a sharp one-liner, or terse visual pun? Respect for concision also animates some of the virtual world’s favourite video commercials— like Geico’s ‘Fast Forward’ ads. Lauded for their self-knowing irony, each fifteen-second spot self-consciously speed-warps us through its own storyline— insinuating, in the process, that Geico ‘gets’ the average Youtuber, understands their desire to skim the fat off a narrative, and hone in on its gist. To market concisely is to be in the know, hip to the frequencies of a content-saturated and time-pressed age.

For many of us, concision has also come to signal a brand’s honesty and transparency. This is unsurprising, since the dispatches from those closest to us are also the ones most likely to appear in informal, truncated forms— in the blips and beeps of a Facebook message, brusque ‘tbf’s and ‘wuu2’s. By extension, concision has morphed into a cultural marker of trustworthiness; long-reads might seem emotionally hollow, airbrushed with big words, but short snippets promise us the spontaneity of a text on-the-go, the naked emotions of a hastily mashed-out twitter rant.

Nowhere is this link between brevity and authenticity more apparent than in the realm of politics. Brexit, for instance, indicated a growing disdain for lengthy political proofs, as voters turned against the admonitions of political experts and the evils that these signified: unapproachability, poshness, and the manipulative intent of distant authority. In America, too, this intuitive link between concision and frankness has molded the tone of the presidential race. For Trump’s supporters, the terse and incendiary quality of their hero’s online persona is precisely its own attraction, signalling the frankness of a leader who won’t back down and isn’t afraid to bark his mind. Surprisingly enough, this logic reaches more broadly across the political spectrum— Clinton’s most retweeted riposte to Trump so far, “Delete your account”, was also one of her shortest, a riff on an internet meme that signified the no-holds-barred, lethal straightforwardness that voters were thirsty for. This was the ‘real’ Clinton, sans PR gloss, emotionally accessible down the hierarchy.

Finally, concision carries new meaning in a hyper-connected world, where shunting text across languages and cultures has become de rigeur. Now that we broadcast across borders and even blog across firewalls, there is a sense in which concision signals inclusivity— a desire to operate at the linguistic equivalent of a lowest common denominator, to reach as many people as possible. Take Emoji, for instance, which invokes the brevity of icon-speak with a raw power to hurdle across borders: a fact that marketers have gleefully acknowledged, launching emoji-laden campaigns that aim to resonate internationally. And if pieces like Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground are anything to go by, brevity is hurtling towards its logical end-point in the arts as well: here, as elsewhere, the minimised text stands for an open heart “not limited by languages or history”, an all-inclusive embrace that crosses the globe.

Brevity has never been so important as it is today. As textual culture slides irrevocably towards the short, the snappy, and the succinct, it might do us well to recall what Hemingway once said about a well-written paragraph: even when you’ve got all the water out of it, you can still clot the curds a little more.

[1] Donald J. Ragsdale, ‘Brevity in Classical Rhetoric’, The Southern Speech Journal, 31 (1), 1965, 20- 27, p.20.

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