The Incredible Power of a Single Word

A few weeks ago, I spent some time visiting my mother. This involved watching a lot of black and white movies on TCM, her favorite movie channel. During one of the duller offerings – not all of TCM’s selections qualify as “classic” – my mind wandered to a true classic, The Wizard of Oz. It occurred to me that one simple word made the movie not only legendary but a cinematic game-changer. That word? Color.

A gift from a neighbor to my daughter when she was little

Remember, Wizard was made a mere twelve years after talkies launched. Can you imagine the reaction from filmgoers when Dorothy stepped out of her black and white home into the riot of technicolor that was Munchkinland? Sure, the studios made plenty of black and white films after that. But the die – or dye – was cast. Color was the future.

This got me thinking about how a single word can have a cataclysmic effect. My Mad Man dad loved to repeat the adage that the most brilliant man in his business was the creative director who added the word “Repeat” after the words “Lather, Rinse” on shampoo bottles. With that one word, this hero of advertising doubled sales. (Although consumers have since wised up. I checked some shampoo bottles at our house and either the word was gone or the instructions read “Repeat if necessary.”)

Dad also gave a lot of credit to the food industry genius whose Eureka! moment was the word “holes” – as in donut holes. That single word created a delicious donut subgenre.

Gotta love Entenmann’s!

I began thinking about what a transformative word might be in our mystery community. After much internal debate, I landed on “Girl.” This is a slight stretch because it’s the twist in Gone Girl that created the tsunami of attention it received. Whether you’re a fan of the book or not, there’s no denying the enormous power of that jaw-dropping moment. But the ripple effect of Gone Girl begat an entire subgenre of books with the word “Girl” in the title, hence my choice.

It’s fascinating to think how sometimes one single word can beget a brilliant game-changer of an idea. Color. Repeat. Girl. Donut holes.

Okay, that’s two words. But you get the idea.

Readers, can you think of any similar words – or ideas – that proved to be game changers?

41 thoughts on “The Incredible Power of a Single Word

      1. You’re too kind, Jen. Thanks for the shout out. An, OMG, it was like a holiday when my mom brought Entenmann’s home. Sooo good!

        Liked by 3 people

  1. Let me celebrate the power of the thesaurus. When I get on a roll with my writing, I don’t want to stop to consider word choice – I just want to let it flow. So if I happen upon a word I’m not sure fits, I just put it down and go on until my wordphrenzy is exhausted. Then I can go back at leisure and use the online or the hard copy thesaurus, until I find just the word I’m looking for.

    Another thing about thesauri. These days, they’re in dictionary format; the words are simply in alphabetical order with synonyms and antonyms listed. But the original Roget’s thesaurus – which I still have in hard copy with the cover missing – was indexed by concept, with an alabetical index in the back to get the user to the right place. This is so much more powerful than a simple alphabetical index. When I use it, I often find that it was not my word that was vague, but the concept itself, and the thesaurus helps me hone in on the perfect concept.

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  2. In the food marketing biz, “healthy.” A true game-changer from the whole “diet” generation (which was the previous game-changing word).

    As for Entenmann’s, this California girl has rarely eaten them, but it’s sounding pretty good right about now!

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  3. 3D … low-carb … single-use/personal sized … all-in-one … DIY … and my personal game-changer, those full-sized cheesecakes you can buy, but with every slice a different flavor.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. You made me curious, El. I just went and looked at my shampoo bottle. I thought they all said lather, rinse, repeat — but they don’t anymore!
    Remember how all the sales signs used to say “Buy one, get one FREE? I think whoever came up with BOGO is a genius. You can read those signs with BOGO in big letters from the street!

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  5. Hmm. Well, “elementary” always says Sherlock Holmes to me. And Excalibur! also springs to mind. But El, it’s funny you mentioned “Girl.” Today Netflix let me know that their new parody flick The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (starring Kristen Bell) is a 99% match for me.

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  6. I’m very influenced by advertising and always rinse and repeat. I’m also partial to donut holes.

    I love how a single word can change so much. I can’t think of any from my own life, but I recently read that “vax” was the OED word of the year!

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  7. Writers often strive to move from “good” to “better.” Our enemy is better, because it keeps us from reaching for “best.” A Jedi mind trick? Perhaps, but the third word makes best sellers.

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  8. Great discussion!

    How about products that became the name across all manufacturers?

    – Aspirin
    – Hoover (used in the U.K. as a verb)
    – Kleenex
    – and for us Southern born folks – ‘Coke’ was any soda..

    Like

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