History

Ever wonder why some words are worth 5¢ and others are worth 25¢? Doug Anderson from Learning and Teaching English explains on his site:

In North America, and probably elsewhere, up until the 1960s, many lawyers charged by the word for many kinds of contracts. If you needed a contract written for some business situation, such as making a loan, or buying a house, many lawyers would charge by the word. This gave rise to the expression “5 cent words and 25 cent words”.

Since the amount of money the lawyer received was based on the number of words, contracts tended to be lengthy and confusing. For example, a contract would often begin with the words:

Hereafter let it be known that the party of the first part, Douglas Anderson, and the party of the second part, Joseph Schmuck, do hereby enter into an agreement to …

That’s 26 words, not counting the people’s names, that could just have easily been said as:

Douglas Anderson and Joseph Schmuck agree to …

Hey, that’s only 3 words!

But at 5 cents a word, the lawyer would receive $1.30 for the first sentence, but only 15 cents for the second one. Guess which one the lawyer prefers?

Starting in the 1960s, there was a mass movement by consumer groups in North America to simplify contracts, and today, when you open an account at a bank you get a legal agreement defining the bank’s responsibilities and your rights, and you can actually read and understand the contract.

In the old days, lawyers charged 5 cents for a short or common word, and 25 cents for a long or less common word. So the tendency was to use as many long words as possible. Why say résumé when you can say Curriculum Vitae?

“Up Shit Creek without a paddle” is a common American expression that means you are in trouble. Using 25 cent words, this becomes “Up Excrement River without a means of locomotion”.


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