Many English words are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings. One such word is “bow”. It is a versatile word. If a person is versatile, it means that person has many different skills and can do many different things. If a word is versatile, it means that word can be used in many ways. The noun of the adjective “versatile” is “versatility”. I was reminded of the versatility of the word “bow” when retired judge Henry Litton said “a shot across the bow” when talking to the media last week. He said mainland China’s warning that only the National People’s Congress can interpret the Basic Law was “a shot across the bow”.
Mainland officials had expressed anger after the High Court ruled the government’s mask ban was unconstitutional. They insisted only the central government can decide what is constitutional. The expression “a shot across the bow” means a warning shot. The word “bow” used this way means the front part of a ship. Warships sometimes open fire over the bow as a warning. But “a shot across the bow” can also mean a verbal warning. The pronunciation of “bow” used this way is the same as when someone bows slightly, like Japanese people do to say hello or goodbye. It rhymes with “cow”. Some protesters at the Polytechnic University had used bows and arrows last week when police fired teargas at them.
The word “bow” used this way has the same pronunciation as bow tie. It rhymes with the name Joe. The word “bow” also means the thing that looks like a stick used for playing a violin. It also rhymes with Joe. The word “bow” also means to bend your body very low at the waist to kowtow to someone. Used this way, it rhymes with “cow”. The government has refused to bow to the remaining four demands of the protesters. Used this way it means to give in or agree to. It also rhymes with “cow”. As you can see, “bow” is a versatile word.
許多英文字詞的串法一樣，卻有不同的發音和意思，「bow」就是一個這樣的字。它是一個versatile的字。若一個人是versatile，即是說那人多才多藝；若一個字是versatile，即是指那字是多義的，可有多種用法。形容詞versatile的名詞是versatility。當退休法官列顯倫上星期跟傳媒談話，說到「a shot across the bow」時，就令我想起了「bow」一字的多功能性（versatility）。他說，中國內地警告只有全國人民代表大會才能解釋《基本法》，這樣的警告是「a shot across the bow」。
高等法官裁定政府的《禁蒙面法》違憲，內地官員對此表達憤慨。他們堅持，只有中央政府才可以決定甚麼是符合憲法的。習語「a shot across the bow」意即鳴槍示警、最後通牒。「Bow」在這裏是指船頭。戰艦有時會向敵方的船頭（bow）上方發炮，以作警告。但「a shot across the bow」也可以指口頭上的警告。
「Bow」在這裏則跟煲呔bow tie的 bow是同音的，它跟人名Joe押韻。「Bow」也可以指小提琴的琴弓，亦跟人名Joe押韻。「Bow」也解作向某人卑躬屈膝時的欠身、鞠躬，在這裏它就跟「cow」押韻。政府拒絕bow to示威者餘下的四個訴求——在這裏bow to是指屈服、順從。這個bow亦跟「cow」一字押韻。從以上的例子你就可以見到，「bow」實在是個多用途的多義語（versatile word）。
Michael Chugani 褚簡寧