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Jack Smith

One-pulse prose gains ground in a world where air and ear are filled with gob bel dee guk

June 11, 1985|JACK SMITH

Government language is so full of gobbledygook these days that it refreshes the spirit to learn of a high-ranking officer who has done his bit to reverse the trend.

The current Leatherneck magazine notes that Gen. P. X. Kelly, commandant of the corps, recently stated:

"Nautical terminology is inherent in our tradition and history. During the 1970s, several nautical terms were discontinued. The changes led, in turn, to an increasing laxity in proper use of Navy terminology.

"To reverse this trend, the following terms will be discontinued: 'Unaccompanied personnel housing.' It is simply 'bachelor quarters.'

" 'Unaccompanied enlisted personnel housing' will be referred to as 'bachelor enlisted quarters,' or 'BEQ.' 'Unaccompanied officer personnel housing' will be 'Bachelor officer quarters' or BOQ.

"Finally, the 'enlisted dining facility' will henceforth be referred to as 'messhall.' "

Bravo and semper fidelis !

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that most of the laws we live by can be set forth in words of one syllable--or one pulse, to use a word used by those who make a game of this kind of talk.

You may notice that the only word of more than one syllable in that last paragraph was syllable itself.

The game of writing this kind of one-pulse prose is introduced to me by Raymond McHugh of Cal State Northridge, and his wife, Nancy, of Grant High School, Van Nuys.

They write:

"As one who has long liked words, Jack, you might be pleased to read the sketch that I have sent with this note. . . . It showed up in print just when you were laid low and out of touch some months ago. Of course, others who think they know your taste may by now have sent the piece to you."

I don't know whether the McHughs intended that paragraph to be one-pulse or not, but if so, they blew it with others .

They go on:

"You could use this work to add to your views about skill, sense, and style when one writes. It can be fun and tough if you try to say big or even small thoughts with this mode of speech only. . . ."

The sketch is called "One-Pulse Words: Short, Sweet, and to the Point." It was written by Anne Davis Toppins, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of Alabama, and was published by Phi Delta Kappan.

"Once a day," she begins, "I try to state in short words what I think. The words I use are words of one pulse. . . . My aim is to clear my head."

To illustrate, she has translated the Pledge of Allegiance into one-pulse words:

"I pledge my troth to the flag of the states that are joined in this land and to the form of rule for which it stands; one large state with trust in God, not to be split; in which all can be free and for whom the law is just."

Toppins speaks of a club whose rules she has adopted. (1) Use no words of more than one pulse. (2) Words that make use of a small mark (such as don't) are fine but should be used with care. (3) Folks' names that have more than one pulse should be changed to code words. (4) Don't be a pest.

I don't see any point in changing folks' names to code words. Names do not make gobbledygook. What code word would you substitute for the magnificent drum roll of Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

It would strengthen that Pledge of Allegiance if the United States was kept, instead of "the states that are joined in this land." That phrase, though it is composed of one-pulse words, is essentially gobbledygook itself, since it uses eight words to say what can be said with more force in two.

But I agree that almost anything can be said in words of one pulse.

Toppins points out that the Bard himself was eloquent in one-pulse words. "To thine own self be true." "Out damned spot! out, I say!" "What's in a name?" "To be or not to be."

Also, she notes, much of our wisdom is expressed in words of one syllable: "Where there's a will, there's a way." "Where there's smoke, there's fire. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." "All things come to him who waits."

The King James version of the Bible (which she calls, to avoid its two-syllable name, the Book of God), is rich in one-pulse lines: "And God said, 'Let there be light,' " "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

To show that fine poetry is possible in words of one syllable, Toppins quotes Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom she describes as the maid whose first name is the same as the queen of the Brits and whose last name is Brown with an ing on the end.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

my soul can reach. . . .

Toppins is safe, I imagine, in calling Elizabeth a maid, to avoid the two-syllable woman ; although Robert Browing loved her passionately, the times being what they were, and Elizabeth's father being the tyrant he was, I suppose she was indeed a maid when she wrote her "Sonnets From the Portuguese."

In any case, you can see that we could do quite well in words of one pulse, if we were of a mind to.

Perhaps it does clear the mind.

But in time the ear longs for just one sesquipedalianism.

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