Single words are singular

uno power

Once again, I came across the saying in my favourite newspaper — no prizes for guessing which — that one picture is worth a thousand words. An inveterate lover of words, I felt more than a little aggrieved. In my experience, one word can accomplish quite as much, or even more. I believe that single words can be singular.

Take the word ‘why’, for example. Two of my granddaughters proved how this small but pertinent word could lay the foundation for a lengthy but inconclusive flow of conversation. We three were taking a walk together when the younger one asked her sister, “Why do we have to drive on the left?”

“Because,” the older one replied in a superior tone, “left is right.”
Sweeping aside her terse humour came the reply, “But why?”
“The law says so.”
“Why does the law say this? Why not the right?”
“Because that’s the way it is.”
“But why?”

“Because the sky is so high, and you can’t multiply,” she snapped, and with that she strode ahead, leaving her sister wondering, and me pondering over the strength of ‘why’, which, of course, has produced a number of philosophers, and will continue to do so.
When men roll their eyes, lift up their hands exclaiming, “Women!”, we all know what their thoughts are. It brings to mind a whole lot of imputations levelled at the fairer sex down the centuries. Just a couple of examples are enough to make my meaning clear. The first one goes — ‘Before marriage, a man yearns for a woman; after that, he earns for her’. The second goes — ‘Man is the better part of woman’. I wonder whether any woman, dead or alive, agrees with these sentiments.

Of course, women too throw up their hands in despair, exclaiming, “Men!” Perhaps Shakespeare summed it up neatly by saying, “Men are but children of a larger growth.” They need to be pampered and yet have to be looked up to. All said and done, everyone will agree that men and women are different. But ‘how’ different is still a mystery to most people, which is why there is a plethora of books attempting to explain this conundrum.
Moving into safer waters, consider the word ‘if’. It has been described as one of the most powerful and mysterious of words. What follows ‘if’ could be anything under the sun — happiness or regret, fact or fancy. If you have read Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, you’ll know what I mean. Every line begins with an ‘if’ and details all you need to be a ‘Man’. If nothing, it demonstrates the power of a mere two-letter word. Incidentally, Kipling, it appears, knew the power of a single word. He received a note from a fan who hoped to get his autograph. It read: ‘I hear you get paid five dollars for every word you write. Enclosed is five dollars. Please send me one word.’ And Kipling replied, ‘Thanks’.

Our expectations and perceptions not only come to the fore, but are also altered by single words. A motorist came to a sharp turning and was carefully negotiating it when, out of the blue, came a vehicle from the opposite side. The lady driving it screamed at him, “Pig.” Startled but bent on revenge, the motorist reversed and shouted back, “Cow!” With great satisfaction he proceeded and discovered a huge pig lying across the road.
Not to be ignored are the short and simple words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They can well represent the difference between heaven and hell. ‘Yes’ is like the green light that says, ‘Go ahead’. It is positive as well as empowering. ‘No’ has a negative connotation and will bring all your plans to a grinding halt. What is the most heart-warming word of all? By common consent, it is ‘mother’. No wonder that the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “I know nothing that has so much power as a word. Sometimes I write one and look at it until it begins to shine.”


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