Whether introducing a charming essay or slim monograph, a witty epigram or stately sonnet, on is the most accommodating of words: the eternal handmaiden, the chivalrous cicisbeo, the dutiful emcee welcoming the main topic on stage. Though it plays this obliging, some might say servile role impeccably, it is high time that on emerge from the syntactical shadows to bask in the light of its lapidary splendor.
To be on is to be alive, energetic, aflame, to display one’s best self. Similarly, on is language’s best self, demonstrating how much can be done with so little. Compact, suggestive, manifold, on is the preposition that launched a thousand idioms.
Derived from the Proto-Germanic ana, on conjures up Iron Age images of unruly beards and makeshift encampments: the terse utterance of a culture hardened by the elements. These rude forbears, emerging from their mist-shrouded forests to rampage across Europe, were not prone to reflection. No Teutonic Hazlitt composed his lucid thoughts in essay form (e.g., “On Pillaging”). Rather, these restless warriors were in thrall to their wanderlust. On, on! we hear their guttural voices echoing through the millennia.
And yet we would be neglecting on’s suppleness were we to focus solely on its muscular genealogy. In its imperative form — on! — it is certainly a spur to action, but when reversed, a brake: no! Moreover, on displays a nobility of spirit, charitably lending its services to other nouns (onlooker) or prepositions in need, either supporting them from behind — “onto” — or lighting the way forward—“upon.” It can introduce the most heartbreaking of topics, such as Ben Jonson’s elegy to his son, or, from the same pen, a Rabelaisian bibelot: “On Gut.” (The poet was even said to have written a jeering missive to a deceived husband, “On Thy Wife,” but that bit of doggerel has been lost to time.)
A preposition wrapped in an adverb wrapped in an enigma, on is a tiny word, yet it contains multitudes. Its deceptive modesty could even be said to conceal the most fundamental of our drives. After all, what is the coupling of one vowel and one consonant but a chaste replication of the sexual act? And lest I be accused of overanalysis — as I often have been by blinkered partisans of under or beneath — consider on’s entanglement with the mating ritual: courtship is initiated with a come-on, which, if accepted, leads to both parties being turned on, and, if all goes well, a hard-on, and then…but enough. In the interests of decency, I won’t go on.
Any scholar of Shakespeare’s sonnets will gladly explain the equally bawdy potential of on’s chief rival, in, which the perceptive reader has noticed I have avoided mentioning till now. While the two words do occasionally tolerate proximity — e.g., come on in, in on it — tolerate is all. How it pains me even to type those shoddy combination of letters, so similar and yet vastly inferior to the virtuous one under review. Replacing on’s lovely o, a perfect form, with i, that impudent, egotistical erection, in is boorish, vulgar, so denotatively and connotatively crass that the mouth seems to resist pronouncing it. Compare the generous, open pronunciation of on, the mouth expanding to greet the world — all its marvels and follies — in blissful communion. “Come one, come all, and feast,” it seems to say, “dinner’s on me.”
On, on! The next time you encounter on beginning a title, ignore what follows. Recite the glorious syllable to yourself in stentorian tones, revel in its wondrous reverberations. Let your eyes linger on its elegant appearance, take in its curves, appreciate its eternal form and endless content. Soon your own love affair with the sublime word will commence, a romance that, unlike ephemeral passions, will go on and on, powering an inner light that will never turn off.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.