When General Sir Charles Napier captured, for the British Empire, the Indian province of Sindh (now a part of Pakistan) in 1844, he reportedly announced this achievement in a one-word telegram. That single word was not English, but, in those days, when every upper-class Englishman received a classical education, the message would have been intelligible to any reader who knew Latin. But even if they understood the word, they wouldn’t have grasped its meaning in this context, unless they also realized that it was a pun. The word was, “PECCAVI,” which in Latin means “I have sinned.” (“Sinned” – “Sindh” – Get it?)
The only problem with this anecdote – which I actually learned as fact, in History class at school – is that it is not true. The truth appears to be that the story was first printed in Punch Magazine, which had received the idea, by mail, from a 16-year-old English girl named Catherine Winkworth.
There may also be a moral dimension to this tale, in that it was felt by many at the time, and by far more since, that the entire British conquest of India was ruthless, reprehensible, and certainly sinful. And it is worth noting that Catherine Winkworth herself went on to have a distinguished career as a translator of hymns.
May I also remind you that it was another young woman, Annie Ellsworth, who (in the same year, 1844) suggested to Samuel Morse the first words (quoting the Bible) which Morse sent publicly by telegraph: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.”
I might further point out that Punch, in its report, while crediting General Napier, and not Miss Winkworth, also compared the General’s alleged telegram, in terms of concise reportage from a military leader, to its only notable predecessor – Julius Caesar’s famous statement (which was also in Latin, of course) after a Roman victory, in what is now northern Turkey, in 47 BC: “Veni, vidi, vici.” This has much more pizzazz than the English translation: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” And it is validated by more than one Roman historian.
While we’re in the foreign language section, Ripley (“Believe It or Not”) relates that a French artist named Charles Hue was once arrested in a place called Peku, and informed his friends with a telegram reading:
“O P Q R S T.”
This was correctly interpreted to say, in French, “Au Peku arresté” (“Arrested at Peku.”)
Another celebrated wartime report, using only one more word than Caesar’s three, was radioed, in January 1942, by Donald Francis Mason, the pilot of a U.S. coastal reconnaissance light bomber, after an encounter in the North Atlantic with a surfaced German submarine. It said: “SIGHTED SUB, SANK SAME.” This received wide publicity, at a time when America had just entered the war, and morale-boosters of every kind were much in demand. (Which makes me wonder if any special haiku were written in Japan, celebrating the successful attack on Pearl Harbor.)
The only problem with that sub story is that, according to official German records, no U-boats were reported missing that day. However, as has often been said, in war, Truth is the first casualty.
Then let us leave war, and bring brevity a little closer to home. It was a two-word telephone message, which a friend took down for me in 1965, which changed my own life dramatically. I had been waiting anxiously to hear whether my application for a teaching position on board a cruise ship, converted into a “floating university,” had been accepted. The message, from the Director of the program, was:
You may know that, since that experience, my career has been primarily based on writing epigrams limited to seventeen words. But seventeen is a maximum – there is no minimum, and some of these expressions have been as short as two words. One of them says, “Happy Everything!” – a pleasant and useful enough message – which has been very popular as a postcard – but perhaps only a little more original than “Happy Birthday” or “Merry Christmas.” There is another one, however, for which, although it has been part of my published series since 1978, I cannot take complete credit. It was left by a friend, not as a “submission,” but simply as part of a note on my front door. I suppose I can claim credit for seeing this two-word message as a piece of literature which deserved whatever literary immortality it was in my power to bestow. It simply says: