If you could pick one word to repeat over and over again like a Pokémon, what would it be? For those who aren’t millennials, Pokémon are little Japanese characters whose complete vocabularies consist of their own names. I watched the first few episodes of the cartoon before my siblings told me it wasn’t cool. Same with the Power Rangers. Tragedies of the youngest boy in the family.
But imagine if you were asked your name, or the way to the Piggly Wiggly, or the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow. And in response, you could only choose one unchangeable word for the rest of your days. And as you hunch in your cave over your freshly caught salmon and handful of mushrooms, muttering about your misfortune and woe, the only word you could utter to express to your painted volleyball roommate how cold your bare feet are would be…what?
Which word would you choose to be with you until your dying day? It would have to bear the weight of your emotions and thoughts, bending under inflection and bolstered by facial cues that can only communicate so much. And it would need to be a word that covered enough bases so that you could convey the bare minimum to be understood.
So, you probably wouldn’t want to choose something like “aglet.” That would be fairly useless, especially in a beach context or during flip flop season. Almost as pointless would be “eaglet,” unless you were specifically trying to get someone to save a young eagle as it choked on a discarded aglet.
Choosing the word “why” would just get you killed. The ruler of the burnt-out gas station would demand of you, “Bagel!” And you, not knowing what he means by that or why he would pick the silliest of breads as his only word, would reply, “Why?” “Bagel!” he demands, old Monster Energy Drinks dangling from his earlobes. You stare at him with wide eyes and dare to say, “Why?” And with no patience for your philosophical shenanigans, you get strangled with a severed gasoline hose. Why? Bagel.
But these are utilitarian considerations, aren’t they? To be fair, that’s the direction in which I’ve pushed us. Like the aftermath of Babel, how would society hold together if every person only had one word for the rest of their lives? That’s not an unimportant way to think about this. But it’s just not as fun.
I really love how sentences fit. Notice, I didn’t say how sentences work. I almost did, but then I caught myself. Economic English has a beauty all its own. Concise can be lovely. But this thought experiment is not to do with sentences. We’re talking about words. We’re discussing your own one word. Your life-word, if you will. Your “verbo vitae” (Google translate, don’t fail me now). I think that phrase probably refers to Jesus, but I hope you’re following the thread here.
I also love how words sound. That’s why poetry should be read out loud and preferably slower than you want to read it. That’s why “cellar door” works so well on an aesthetic level. But what about just one word? If I must choose my verbo vitae, I don’t want one that would merely keep me alive or get me what I need. If the good of my family is involved, then surely. But that’s not the scenario. It’s just you. It’s just me. What word would I love to be stuck with until my lungs stop pumping air?
Obsidian? Duplicitous? Squalor? Sonorous? Barracuda? Pompadour? Dapple?
Probably. No really. I mean it. Probably. It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? And even if you don’t like the sound of it, do you think it would help keep me alive?