17

I am aware of three well known circumstances where a one word response was given to a military ultimatum:

  • The Japanese government responded “mokusatsu” to the Potsdam Declaration prior to the Hiroshima bomb being dropped.

  • (Then Brigadier) General McAuliffe, commanding the 101st Airborne at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, famously replied "Nuts!" to the German demand for surrender.

  • The city of Sparta laconically replied "If!" to Philip of Macedon's demand:

    "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city."

There is absolutely no confusion about the meaning of the latter two instances I describe. Both can clearly be paraphrased by the childhood taunt:

Yeah! You and whose other army?

However there has long been doubt, perhaps even controversy, about the true intended meaning of mokusatsu.

In seeking other examples where a one word answer was provided (in the language of correspondence), perhaps a historical precedent can be established: that laconic one word answers intuitively always carry the baggage of the taunt above. SO in addition to other examples, commentary on how they fit or don't fit the thesis here would be on interest.


Update

Thanks to @semaphore my reference for mokusatsu is much improved. The quote is from a press conference where Suzuki Kantaro first discusses the background of the Potsdam Declaration, and then explicitly states that the response "mokusatsu-suru". Then he discusses what is seen as the only alternative.

To my mind, this does not really alter my position above. The only content that Kantaro is giving to the Allies on behalf of the government, as a response to the Declaration, is "mokusatsu-suru. All the related meta-content, to me, only says that other alternatives were unacceptable or identical. They are rationale for the response, not part of the response. Your mileage may vary, but that is my take.

Here is additional informed commentary on "mokusatsu":

@Semaphore - I read that WP article. It did say that "mokusatsu" is represented by two ideograms ("silence" and "killing"). First thought that hit my head was "doesn't that mean its two words"? (FWIW, second thought was this seems kind of like it would be their translation for "pocket veto", and third was that actually saying it in response would defeat the whole purpose of it). – T.E.D. ♦

@T.E.D. My understanding is Japanese ideograms represent syllables. Hence Haiku are 17 syllables long. It would be like saying "firetruck" is two words because it is composed of the two words fire and truck. – Pieter Geerkens

@T.E.D. I believe it was claimed that they wanted to say "no comment", but did not know what a better translation was. Pieter: You're thinking about kana, which represent sounds; the kanjo characters, like the two that makes up mokusatsu, primarily represent ideas, and each ideograms can have complex or context-dependent pronunciations. Of course, analysing the meaning of a phrase from individual ideograms is the kind of brilliant (/s) linguistics that brought us "the Chinese word for 'crisis' is 'danger opportunity'!" – Semaphore ♦

@andejons: Excellent! I had forgotten that one. – Pieter Geerkens

@PieterGeerkens - "firetruck" is a compound word, which is very different than two random syllables slammed together. Ideograms by definition do not represent syllables. If that happens, what you have is called a syllabary. Looking it up....Kanji is logographic, however they have a syllabary called "kana" (which is itself actually two syllabaries), and apparently typical Japanese writing mixes both (all 3?) at their convenience. Man, I thought English was a PITA... – T.E.D. ♦

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    Nitpick: McAuliffe was commanding the 101st in the absence of its commander, and the 101st was the main force defending Bastogne. – David Thornley Oct 23 '18 at 15:17
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    My favourite is British para Johnnie Frost's "Sorry, we don't have the facility to take you all prisoner" when the Germans requested (British) surrender at Arnhem. The OP is looking for a subset of laconic phrases, dig through this list: en.m.wikiquote.org/wiki/Laconic_phrases – Nathan Cooper Oct 23 '18 at 15:33
  • I guess that you are not interested in the situations in which the response was "Ok, we will surrender". – SJuan76 Oct 23 '18 at 22:09
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    @SJuan76: As noted above, I believe those always involved negotiation of terms and were never a simple concession of all terms. That is why "unconditional surrender" was so unexpected during WW2 - the demand had never been made before. (by Western European cultures in recent history.) – Pieter Geerkens Oct 23 '18 at 22:35
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    Although neither one word nor military, a response of this sort is called on the left side of the pond the reply given in the case of Arkell v Pressdram. – Brian Hooper Oct 24 '18 at 18:50
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The most famous one in France is le mot de Cambronne (Cambronne's word), supposedly uttered when he was surrounded with Napoleon's Old Guard in Waterloo, June the 18th, 1815:

Colville insisted and ultimately Cambronne replied with one word: "Merde!" (literally, "Shit!", figuratively, "Go to hell!") This version of the reply became famous in its own right, becoming known as le mot de Cambronne ("the word of Cambronne") and repeated in Victor Hugo's account of Waterloo in his novel Les Misérables and in Edmond Rostand's play L'Aiglon.

Although Cambronne himself later denied having said that.

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    The problem with this one is the poor documentation, and refutation by the alleged speaker. There are also opposing claims of "The Guard dies but doesn't surrender" (in French: "La garde meurt et ne se rend pas !") were uttered instead. – Pieter Geerkens Oct 23 '18 at 14:44
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    I agree. According to wiki, Cambronne would have answered "La garde meurt et ne se rend pas !" in a first time and "Merde!" only later when Colville insisted. Cambronne denied both citations. Ironically, he is known (at least in France) outside of historians circles only for this two answers he probably never gave. – Evargalo Oct 23 '18 at 14:53
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    Whether he said "Merde!", "The Guard dies, it does not surrender!", or both... the Guard surrendered. Which doesn't change its suitability as an answer to this question, but does rather cast its defiance into perspective compared to "if" and "nuts!". – BittermanAndy Oct 24 '18 at 11:14
18

"No" or "Ohi"

In Greece they celebrate "Ohi Day" or "No Day" to commemorate the day that Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected the ultimatum made by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on 28 October 1940 allegedly with a simple "No".

Wikipedia reports that his actual reply was “Alors, c’est la guerre!” (so this is war!).

References:

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/nuts-five-best-responses-surrender-ultimatums-history.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ohi_Day

15

Maybe not an ultimatum, but the British general Charles Napier is reputed to have replied "Peccavi" (latin for "I have sinned") after accidentally conquering the Indian region of 'Sindh' when he discovered belated orders telling him not to.

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    Not true of course, but I bet he wished he'd said it. – Strawberry Oct 24 '18 at 11:06
7

A runner-up must be "Μολών λαβέ" (usually translated as "come and get them") by Leonidas of Sparta after being told by the Persians (ridiculously outnumbering them) to surrender their weapons at the pass of the Thermopylae.

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    Is this a one word response? – sean Oct 24 '18 at 19:17
  • I think that a more accurate translation is, "having come, get them": which implies, "if you can come -- and that's a big if -- then you can get them" – ChrisW Oct 25 '18 at 10:43
5

As comments about mokusatu and Cambronne's example show, these one word answers tend not to be actually literal or not to be actually just one word. However, a famous one word answer to an ultimatum was Greece's answer to Italian ultimatum on October 28th 1940: "ohi" (no). It is still celebrated every year in Greece in Ohi Day.

3

Götz von Berlichingen's famous (to Germans at least) Schwäbischer Gruß; "Er kann mich im Arsche lecken" - "he can lick my arse".

This may be entirely legendary.

Götz von Berlichingen really did exist, he was a minor nobleman, knight, pirate, kidnapper and freebooter in the 16th century, constantly feuding with all and sundry. The story was made popular by Goethe, and it was the response to a demand that he give up marauding and surrender.

Edit: oops, of course that isn't one word. Shall I delete it?

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    Does this become one word somehow? – axsvl77 Oct 24 '18 at 12:56
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    Actually, a closer translation is "kiss my arse". It's a common enough figure of speech even today and can be used in front of - even by - decorous grannies and staid schoolmarms – Mawg Oct 24 '18 at 13:18
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    @Mawg: Respectfully disagree. The literal translation actually is "he can lick me in [as in inside] the arse". Even if we leave room for English euphemisms, that's not exactly a kiss, and it's a lot more explicit than the English idiom. – Denis de Bernardy Mar 15 at 19:26
  • @Mawg That's a more polite translation, but definitely not a closer translation. "im Arsche lecken" does not involve any kissing whatsoever. – Jos Mar 15 at 23:46

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