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A Small Word

11 Jun

There is a word that seems abused by ignorance: “O”. It is unusually at once a letter and a word, much as its cousins “I” and “a”. Aside from “I” and proper nouns, it is the only word that necessarily begins with a capital letter. Notwithstanding these remarkable properties, it is increasingly displaced by the more vulgar interjection “oh”.

Now “oh” has its uses, certainly. When one is surprised or pained, it serves its common function very nicely. But there exists a vocative majesty to “O”: consider the most visceral incantation “O, god” (“o, domine”). Indeed, the ecclesiastical survival of the word is a consequence of the fact that it has been used for millennia, with the Romans addressing their peers with this interjection in classical antiquity. For who can forget Cicero’s despair: “o tempores, o mores!” And how much less spectacular it is when the orator exclaims “oh tempores” as if he had stumbled across time and was mildly surprised to find it. No, our single-lettered friend exists in our language in a special but precarious way. And we would do well to remember it.

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