Today’s word of the day is Laconic. It is an adjective describing one’s speech or writing; the dictionary defines it as “expressing much in few words; concise.” Its etymology stems from Laconia or Lacedaemon, which was the region of ancient Greece that surrounded the city of Sparta and fell under her hegemony. Today, the words Laconia, Lacedaemon or Sparta can be used interchangeably for most contemporary purposes. To say that someone’s speech is Laconic is to say that their choice of words is befitting that of a Spartan.
To understand why terse speech would become associated with Sparta, you have to look at ancient Greece as a whole. This was a time where the pinnacle of every young aristocrat’s education was the art of Rhetoric. Wealthy parents would send their kids to an Academy for formal training in logic and elocution; those who could afford it might hire the local philosopher as a private tutor. The ability to deliver a beautiful and persuasive monologue was considered a core competency of the ruling classes, and was practiced in public for sport and entertainment. The Spartans thought this was just so much bullshit, and had no stomach for the dissembling babble of performers and politicians:
“For as the Celtiberians make steel of iron by burying it in the ground, thereby to refine it from the gross and earthy part, so the Laconic way of speech has nothing of bark upon it, but by cutting off all superfluity of words, it becomes steeled and sharpened to pierce the understanding of the hearers. So their consciousness of language, so ready to turn the edge to all manner of questions, became natural by their extraordinary practice of silence.” -Plutarch
The Spartans understood the Athenians’ fetishism of art, philosophy and literature, but dismissed them as trivial vanities with little practical application. They were not dumb; they were an ancient version of today’s STEM majors, prone to categorize the liberal arts as low-yield pursuits for granola-munching free spirits. Socrates even praised the Spartans’ intelligence in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras:
“… they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be ignorant, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle … This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like an expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child.”
The famous Laconic Phrase wasn’t just about economy of language. Spartans had a nuanced understanding of communication; they knew that what isn’t said could convey at least as much meaning as what is. Plutarch demonstrated this principle beautifully in his account from the Third Sacred War, where after conquering most of Greece king Philip II of Macedon sent the following message to Sparta: “You are advised to submit immediately, for if my army steps foot in Lacedaemon it will raze your crops, kill your men and enslave your society.” Sparta’s reply to the conqueror was a single word: “If.” Both Philip and his son Alexander the Great would avoid tangling with Sparta after that exchange.
The Spartans weren’t always so awesome. When the Athenian fleet arrived to liberate their city of Cyzicus during the Peloponnesian War, they cleverly drew out the Spartans by disguising their numbers. The Spartan admiral Mindarus fell for it, and his fleet was properly annihilated. His deputy Hippocrates sent the following message to Sparta HQ:
“Ships sank. Mindarus dead. The men starve. Request guidance.”
Notice the complete lack of obfuscation, ass-covering, or pretentious displays of self-deprecation. It’s just the facts. When you have bad news to deliver, this is how you do it.
Getting to the point… Get to the point. Be concise in your words and in your writing; before your subordinates as well as your superiors. Economy of language is extremely important to being heard. Reduce the message if you have to; you can always follow up with details. Cultivate a reputation for being “a man of few words” and soon you’ll find that your words carry more weight.