Brian Edwards Media

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Franz Kafka

More than half a century ago, when I was a lecturer in German literature at the University of Canterbury, I was myself taught a lesson about effective pedagogy: Never use a long word when a shorter word will do. Keep it simple, Stupid!

I was lecturing on the Czech/German writer Franz Kafka, some of whose nightmarish novels and short stories you may be familiar with: The Trial, The Castle and The Metamorphosis whose central character wakes up one morning to find that he has been transformed into a beetle.

What did it all mean? Well, if you’ve got a lifetime or two to spare you could read all the scholarly books and articles that have been written on that topic. But basically it comes down to this: some people think the books are religious allegories; other people think they reflect Kafka’s relationship with his domineering father. I belong to the second group.

Lecturing on Kafka to Stage One students at Canterbury all those years ago, I described Kafka’s dad as ‘a professional vulgarian’ who was both the root cause of his hypersensitive son’s neuroses and the principal source of his inspiration.

The lectures produced some pretty lively and even heated discussion among my students. A success in other words. I looked forward to reading their essays.

The first began, ‘Kafka’s father was a professional Bulgarian…” About half the class apparently shared this mistaken belief.

My students had taught me a valuable lesson: Never use a long word when a shorter word will do just as well. Keep it simple, Stupid!



  1. My takeaway from that was not to try repeating a phrase without first finding out what it means and whether you’re quoting it right. Like the classic “for all intensive purposes” said by people who’ve obviously heard but not read the correct phrase and got the gist of the meaning but haven’t bothered to think about what they’re actually saying.

  2. The other often misused phrase which is very popular right now is “unchartered territory” especially in political blogs trying to sound clever. It is uncharted territory rather than that for which there is no charter or constitution!

  3. It is actually a confirmation that a large proportion of the population although highly intelligent lack common sense and cannot ask themselves the simple question, “does this make sense.”

    I recall an examination for shorthand transcription years ago which include the phrase, ‘ministers of the Crown’.

    A large proportion of those taking the examination transcribed this as ‘monsters on the ground’. Even if their shorthand was lacking in clarity common sense should have told them that their transcription made no sense whatsoever in the context of the dictation piece.

    • While I’m surprises the phrase could be mis-heard as described, I’m not all that sure that “Ministers of the Crown” and “monsters on the ground” are as different as you imagine, Ben. I can’t see much difference in the meaning at all.

    • Given the behaviour and actions of many “ministers of the Crown”, could I suggest that the ” large proportion of those taking the examination transcribed…” it perfectly correctly!