Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Comprehensibility Of Clear Expression

I love antique radios. I could go on and on about this topic. (Yes, I know, I could go on and on about any topic.) I also find language interesting. Mostly English, since that's the language I mostly know.

So I was doubly entertained when I came across this 1920's advertisement...

This was obviously a lot of money to spend for what was arguably one of the first "portable" radios. Equivalent to nearly $1,300 today. It goes to show there was always a cost associated with being an early adopter. If I were born 120 years ago, I so would have waited in line outside of the Crosley Store for one of these things. Assuming I'd survived World War I, the Spanish Influenza and the first few years of Prohibition.

Aside from the technological and economic aspects of this nostalgic advertisement, I found myself re-reading this sentence:
"But now you need wish for such a set no longer, because we offer herewith a portable set that brings in distant broadcasting stations with perfect clearness."

Did people really talk like this in 1923? Even if this ad was written in an overly formal tone, something about the word "clearness" didn't feel right to me. I would have expected the copywriter to use the word "clarity" here.

I switched my iPad to my Wolfram Words app. Both "clearness" and "clarity" have the exact same definition:
1 (noun) Free from obscurity and easy to understand; the comprehensibility of clear expression.
2 (noun) The quality of clear water. 

So these words are interchangeable and either can be correctly used here. But why does "clearness" seem so awkward?

I got a clue why this is when I compared their historical usage frequency:

The written occurrence of "clearness" over time.

The written occurrence of "clarity" over time.

For some reason the word "clarity", which was rarely used before 1900, began replacing the use of "clearness" to the point the word "clearness" is now practically extinct.

I thought I'd feel more sentimental about a word slowly dying out of existence, but I don't. Not when there's a perfectly clear word to use in its place. Unlike vacuum tubes, Art Deco and Flappers, I doubt it'll ever be missed.

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