Short Post Re: Short Words in a Long Book

Not having gotten far enough in anything I’m reading to post about it, I thought I’d direct your attention to a very strange 1898 book, History of England in Words of One Syllable, which I saw in a flea market some time ago and had to buy for its sheer dottiness. It is by Mrs. Helen W. Pierson, and Mrs. Pierson’s ghost would probably be very upset if I omitted the “Mrs.” on subsequent references to her, so I won’t.

This was part of a series entitled “Burt’s One Syllable Histories,” of which Mrs. Pierson was but one of several authors. There were volumes on the United States, Germany, Russia, Ireland, and Japan, among others. “Each Volume Profusely Illustrated,” the publisher promised.

Now, Mrs. Pierson was allowed a little leeway by her publisher. As she could hardly write a history without using any proper nouns of more than one syllable, they do appear in the book, broken down like this: “Now Rich-ard, Duke of Glou-ces-ter, of whom you have heard . . .” But except for proper nouns, and the words “History” and “Syllable” in the title, Mrs. Pierson heroically follows her editorial guidelines for 243 pages, from the Druids to the death of William Gladstone. For instance, she disposes of Cath-a-rine How-ard thusly: “In a few months the king found out that she was not so good as he had thought, and he made short work with her—-her head was cut off.” Even innocuous prepositions like “about” or “without” are ruthlessly omitted.

This book must have been hell, sheer hell to write. I would not want to have to do what Mrs. Pier-son did for long at all. It would drive me mad. Just think—each word a short one but for names and places. And I do not know who was meant to read this book. Folks who could not read well? Tots? But if a child was of the age to read or hear of things that took place in Eng-land, would he not know many words of more than one part?

Just to write this has made me weak. I must go to bed now.

14 thoughts on “Short Post Re: Short Words in a Long Book”

  1. What an incredibly odd series of books! Who could possibly have been the target audience?

    Congratulations on the last paragraph. It is so hard that one should write a word with no more than one part.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    And I see today that I goofed with the word “many”! At least there are plenty of one-syllable words with which to express my frustration.

    It is a fun book, though.

  3. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie! By the way, I’m going to point my mother to your knitting blog–she likes to knit, and she just started surfing the web a few months ago. (That means I have to be ever-so-ladylike in my blog now that Mom can see it.)

    These one-syllable histories are really a wacky series of books. One I can see, just to show it could be done, but a whole series?

    Alianor, Edward II doesn’t get very good treatment in this book (he’s described as a “weak king,” but his “new friend” Hugh De-spen-ser is described as “a brave, fine young man” who “might have won the love of all if he had not been the friend of the king.”

  4. Only the Brits can come up with a thing like that. 🙂

    Btw, I would never work with the German language – something like ‘no words of less than three syllables’ would be easier for us.

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    There was that joke by Mark Twain that he didn’t want to leave a German play he went to because he was waiting for the verb . . .

    Actually, I did a little surfing, and these one-syllable books seem to have been rather popular in the US for a time in the nineteenth century. I found that a used book store had a book on George Washington in that format, and there seem to have been books published for at least a few individual states as well. One even seems to have been reissued for the home-schooling market! (Though how a child would be expected to know a word like “loath” or “vile” but not one like “without” or “about” boggles my poor mind.)

  6. Interesting about Hugh De-spen-ser! He seems to get a much better deal from historians of long ago than more recent ones -probably the older ones didn’t know about all his extortions, or in this case, maybe ‘extortionist’ just wouldn’t fit.

    Love that quote by Mark Twain: ‘in German, a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has’. And I love those mouth-crunching German compound nouns!

  7. Susan Higginbotham

    Yes, poor Mrs. Pierson couldn’t have used even the word “pirate.” I suppose “a man who caught ships and took over them and their goods” would have been a bit cumbersome.

  8. And alas, ‘o-ver’ has two syllables. Could it be thought of as a fascinating and frustrating sort of puzzle game, like doing crosswords?

  9. Susan Higginbotham

    Drat! No “over,” no “into” . . . I’d better scrap that proposal I had in mind for “Shakespeare Retold in Words of One Syllable.”

  10. To be or not to be, that is the…..damn!!

    Gabriele, that word is superb! Reminds me of some ‘fake German’ I saw online or in a book a while ago. ‘Dog’ was ‘Barkenpantensniffer’ and a dognapper was ‘Barkenpantensniffersnatcher’. The person who caught the dognapper was a ‘Barkenpantensniffersnatchercatcher’. And on, and on, till it got to a word like yours! 🙂

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