Subtle Sci-fi 0005
Premise: Everyone gets to coin a word.
seeing something as if seeing it through the fingers
It used to be the case that when you reached 60 years of age you could submit your word to the national register. For a previous generation there was a sense of ceremony about this process. Then various protest movements mooted the issue of exclusion on the grounds of age. To paraphrase one of the founders of the WTF group (Words That Fight), these groups’ morgo was poised upon the rhetorical question, why should the language we are all obliged to use be dictated by a generation of people who are going to fucking die soon?
So it was that 5 years ago a new system was introduced in Scotland. Now anyone over the age of 16 may be chosen at random to submit a word. There were just over 56 thousand births registered in Scotland in 2013, which means that just over 56 thousand people will be wordabled in this year’s lottery. And that includes Andy’s 16-year-old brother Nicky.
Nicky sits at the kitchen table, a newly anointed king. His parents allowed him to sit up and have a couple of lagers on his sixteenth birthday. But this is worse for Andy, worse because it could be years or even decades before he might pick a word. In this, his younger brother has beaten him. And now Nicky tries to ingratiate himself with their mum, the only other immediate member of the family to be wordabled. It’s like they both hold an invisible gavel, or conch, or microphone that they pass back and forth. Andy’s dad Jeff listens to the two-way conversation with a look of bemusement. Andy sits boiling up facts from his academic studies; Nicky might get to coin a word in a few weeks time, but he doesn’t have a clue about socio-linguistics.
“You’ve never really told me what your word means mum”, anchorman Nicky says to anchorwoman Janet. Anchorwoman Janet looks to civilian Jeff who simply shrugs.
“Well, I guess you’re old enough,” Janet begins.
Andy has heard the story of the word before, but he’s been two shy to ever repeat it to his brother. He found it embarrassing at first, but as he gets older he sees in it a kind of humanness that he thinks is just about acceptable. Now he’s interested in how the story might pan out as it is told to Nicky.
“Well, wearust [wɛː rʌst] was originally going to be wuerust [vəː ruːst]. Because our generation was taught to build new words from the roots. Weary came from the Old English ‘werig’ and that from the German ‘wuorag’. You know my dad was half German and I liked the definition of the German better because rather than simply mean tiredness or sadness it meant intoxicated. So that’s where I got the ‘wuer’ bit from. Then I put it together with ‘lust’, which has pretty much always been the same word. Then a couple of weeks before I submitted my word , in 2010, the second year of the new system, I read an article about having more fun with words. It said that younger people should break away from old English and latin – all that tradition of grammar. Well, I’d just gone 40 then – you know, mid-life crisis and everything – so I changed it to wear-rust, ‘wearust’.”
“But what does it mean?” Nicky blurted out as if he’d been holding his breath.
“Well”, Janet laughs, which makes Jeff chuckle. Then in her ironic matter-of-fact voice, “It’s when you’re knackered but you really want a bit of passion. You think that you want a bit of, fun”, she pauses before that word to emphasise its other meaning, “but your body won’t really allow it. You wear rust, you feel wearust.”
“OMFG” Nicky responds with staged wide eyes, “that’s gross. I’m so glad it didn’t catch on, people at school would rip the piss out of me.”
Andy is relieved by his brother’s blunt outburst, despite everything Andy can still rest assured that he is still the sensitive one. Nicky, thus confronted with a sense of his mother as a sexual being and a frustrated one at that goes quiet as if contemplating something for the first time.
Jeff Leigh smiles at Janet Leigh, formerly Janet Brown and one hell of a good dancer and one of life’s great go-getters. As Nicky squirms, Andy offers his mum a steady appraisal, enjoying the still novel feeling of seeing her as this whole other person outside life as they’ve known it. They’ve shared this bond more since he went to university, this real understanding that Janet is just a person cast – sometimes clumsily, sometimes tenderly – in the role of mum.
“You know, some words only catch on after a number of years, so you’re not out of the woods yet,” Jeff pipes up. Jeff has his arms folded with a beer in one hand. He prefers to hover rather than sit and leans at the breakfast bar looking down at the other three sitting at the dining table. Andy can now see Jeff as Jeff too, but there’s less mystery in that than in seeing his mum as Janet.
“So how does it feel not to be wordabled?” Nicky stirs Andy from his reverie.
“Your only qualification is that you’re sixteen and lucky. And what you coin won’t catch on. Have you even decided on what it is yet?” Andy responds to his brother in his usual measured way. That is, in the way that most infuriates Nicky. But tonight, with novelty beer in hand Nicky acts nonchalant.
“Ooooo. Well I’ve not quite decided, but it will be cool obviously,” he moves his eye brows in sardonic TV fashion, “and I’ll have a word in the National Lexicon,” he finishes with his Sean Connery impersonation for no real reason.
Jeff and Janet laugh, generously. Andy leans in closer to Nicky.
“The 20 Volume Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary contains about one-hundred, seventy-one thousand, five-hundred words, forty-seven thousand of which are said to be obsolete. So this means that language in Scotland could be completely transformed every three years. But the key fact is, that it isn’t! On the face of it we have a constitutional right to invent a new language for ourselves, but we don’t – and arguably we can’t. It proves that language runs much deeper than the decisions of the body politic. What does it really mean to coin a word when it will just sit on a vast hard drive somewhere?”
Andy wonders if this sounds overly scripted, it’s almost exactly what he wrote in his essay. And that was almost exactly what his tutor Laura Taylor had said. But he has recently felt the need to rehearse it, and to learn and repeat other phrases, some from anarchist websites. That language doesn’t change every few years really gets to him. And any diatribes that highlight this as a fact seem comforting, seem to suggest that others out there have similar anxieties. There’s something wrong with the system that he can’t put his finger on. And the clearest thoughthe has had is appropriated from an anonymous comment on a WTF webpage. It is in the interests of those in power to equip people with as many ineffectual means of political participation as possible. Words cannot just be coined, they have to grow in people like babies; they are long love affairs; they are feats of endurance and suffering. Try it out. Coin a word that means ‘freedom’, say it out loud, repeat it if you want to. You will find that it sounds hollow.The only way to make change is to build your life around new principles. But this isn’t a glamorous process, it’s a slog. Like feminism doesn’t just happen when you say it or don a T-shirt. It’s a daily reappraisal, a questioning thing. Anyway, those who only aim for freedom are probably already free from responsibility, from children, jobs, life. The world is an organism, language is blood.
If Nicky was to comment on his own face in response to Andy’s statement he would probably say it looked like a straining sphincter. Andy stares back at Nicky but doesn’t see him, lost in thought. Nicky hates it when Andy is smart.
“Oh so it was you who swallowed the National Lexicon,” Jeff jokes.
Andy fails to see the joke, which as a result falls flat.
“No. That’s the point I’m making. No one swallows it. That’s why apart from a few changes to reflect new uses of technology, like ‘bashtag’, ‘photobomb’ or ‘selfie’, little changes.” Andy says this very quietly, trailing off at the end.
“You’re just jealous you prick,” Nicky offers.
Janet gives Andy one of her smiles to say ‘you’re taking life too seriously’. Andy closes his eyes for a moment, then, “I’m off to bed.”
Andy nods at everyone in turn to say goodnight. He knows his exit is abrupt, but he doesn’t want to explain it.
“We’ll try to get it out of Nicky, you know, what his word is,” Jeff winks.
an imaginary shopping centre where unfulfilled hopes terrorise capitalism
There was that deep smell of old books. The space was clean and climate controlled, but nevertheless suggested a creeping pall of dust. Andy felt overwhelmed by the scale of it, sensitive to its content; to think that this was just one of the three converted aircraft hangers. The large index books were filed into the sturdy metal grid shelving systems, forming solid geometric walls that dwarfed the small group of students.
The man who showed them around seemed like a traditional archivist better suited to some small council run museum than these industrial spaces. Richard – that’s his name, written on a scruffy badge – joked about his lack of academic qualifications when they arrived. Perhaps it was in lame response to their tutor’s slightly curt manner; or defence against a group booked under the name, ‘socio-linguistics module 1’.
Laura Taylor had pulled a face behind Richard as he doddered through his introduction, a way of reassuring her students that once he left them she would ensure a rigorous introduction. That time was coming close. Richard’s talk was an awkward mix of remembered facts and then mumblings and head-scratching where facts used to be.
“The great wars obviously caused gaps in the archive, but otherwise you can find every word coined in Scotland since the start of the system in 1832, when introduced under the Scottish Reform Act. It has been argued,” a scratch of the head, a muttering about who might have made the argument, “that it was something of a swing back against a continental enlightenment ethos. Scotland had Hume and was protected somewhat by his philosophy, but in France there was a tendency towards a totalisation of knowledge.”
“What was I saying? Yes, you see that by introducing a law that everyone must coin a word, year upon year, you effectively pass a law that acknowledges that knowledge – the sum of words – is always out of reach.”
Here Laura seemed to take up Richard’s defence and she added, “This relates to the reading list you were given, and it’s really important. Whether you argue for or against the value of wordablement in your essays, you’ll have to acknowledge its symbolic quality. This massive, abstract, unreadable archive is symbolic of something that exceeds the notion of composite knowledge. You also need to ask yourselves, is knowledge quantifiable against the number of words available? Are languages comprised of less words necessarily impoverished? ”
Andy sensed his over reliance on Laura’s opinion. He had been dead set against Richard a minute ago – bored by the old servant of the archive. Now he resolved to pay him more respect. The hum of a mobile platform sounded in the distance.
Richard rubbed his brow with old, artistic hands. “So, the main visitors now are historians who are interested in what previously-coined words represent. Even though 99.9% of words are unknown to a large proportion of the public, or used only in familial ways, they still represent the desires of people to express something about the times they lived in. Let me think of some good examples.”
“Yes, one word coined in 1887 is ‘buildergast’. That period was a time of British expansion and international trade fairs were all the rage. In 1886 there was the great “Exhibition of Industry, Science & Art” in Edinburgh. It took place on the Meadows, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. Similar to other trade fairs it included recreations of other places – a bit like they do in theme parks. They recreated lots of buildings that had once stood in Edinburgh’s old town. This, and also the fact that the massive trade hall that had been built for the fair had to be dissembled due to an old law, led a Mrs R. Stewart to coin ‘buildergast’. The definition is,” a series of groans and a rubbing of the face, “a building or inanimate object that will haunt the future.”
Relieved by the fact he’d managed to recall all that information Richard suddenly seemed reluctant to try another feat of recollection. “And there, perhaps, I’ll leave you to look around. As we discussed, if you press one of the buttons at the end of an isle someone will help you find a specific year if you want to look up a word. In this hangar we have everything post World War II. I’m afraid there is only restricted access to the other hangars with the older materials, for conservation reasons.”
“Thanks Richard,” Laura offered. Andy and his peers wanted to seem like conscientious young adults and said thanks too. Richard made a strange curtsey and walked off so slowly that at first it didn’t seem like he was leaving.
“Well, here it is. All words coined from 1945 and –Richard forgot – up to 2012, where-after everything was digitised. I think that each year, as I see you guys getting more and more weaned on to digital platforms, seeing this massive material depot becomes more important. The promise of ‘tech’,” Laura makes the speech mark signs with her hands, “is a semantic network, Web 3.0, which will allow people to actually use the practically infinite number of words now available for common speech. Yet, the history of wordablement is in fact inseparable from this: this obscure, voluminous goliath. As far as language is concerned, you might call this hangar a buildergast.”
Laura continued for a while, discussing various theories and opinions. Andy didn’t know what his own opinions were. She mentioned a few names he didn’t recognise and he nodded along anyway as if he did. Then a question perked his interest, “would anyone like to try the archival system and look up a word that a member of their family coined just out of interest, to see if we can find it? Does anyone remember the year a word was coined?”
Perhaps from the frustration of not being able to contribute any intelligent thoughts, on the theories of people whose names he didn’t recognise, Andy volunteered himself.
“Ok, let’s try this,” Laura said, moving the group over to one of the intercoms at the end of isle 22. “What year was the word coined Andrew?”
“Oh, so one year after the new system was introduced. And what is the name?”
“Is that your mam?”
“Yeah,”Andy nodded. There was warmth to the way Laura sometimes spoke to him. It was like she recognised that he was a bit sheltered and a bit vulnerable in some ways. He didn’t get the caustic responses some of the others got when they asked dumb questions.
Laura pressed a button and passed on the relevant details. After about 5 minutes a small electronic quad bike with a clean padded trailer for books rolled up. The woman driving it wore blue overalls bearing the archives’ logo. She had a jocular vibe and seemed to bounce out of the seat.
“So this is the 2010 index, letter ‘L’,” she beamed, “Who wants it?”
Laura pointed at Andy, who accepted it. He placed it in a purpose built lectern and looked up LEIGH, Janet. He seemed to miss the name the first time around, perhaps because the paper was so thin. He got a bit flustered and when it came to reading out the word and his mum’s definition of it – knowing it would get a few laughs – he read it quickly without really reading it.
“Janet Leigh. Wearust, the feeling of pained or suicidal despondency resulting from the trials of raising children.”
There was pause. “Andy, you ok? You said you knew what it was right?”
Andy nodded and smiled to deflect attention from himself. As the group turned to Laura, who didn’t dismiss her concern for Andy but was ready to conclude for the day, Andy re-read the entry to himself.
Splant / ‘splɑːnt /
An angle to view an object from which makes the object unrecognisable as the object.
“Maybe my definition wasn’t so good. You see I’d carried the word with me for a while, it built up other meanings. I just couldn’t sum up what I wanted to say and now it doesn’t seem to mean what I wanted it to,” Janet implored, “I didn’t mean that you’d ruined my life.”
Nicky had been in a sulk in his room all week. This was one of the few times he had emerged. He and Andy had been getting a late night snack when Janet had pounced upon them. Neither Andy or Nicky had felt the need to ask their mum why she had lied, it didn’t seem relevant. But the shock that their mum, who often acted like nothing could phase her, had suffered depression as a result of parenthood had hit hard.
“You can see that can’t you? That when you’re put to it, to defining your word it’s hard? All you’ve got are other words to try to get out this intensely personal thing. And they let you down, they really let you down. Despite everyone getting to coin a word, no one really teaches you how to do it. We’re not all poets are we?
“God, I remember your Grandparents’ definitions, they were barely grammatically correct. Although, having said that – you know – that might have been what made them the words they wanted them to be.
“What I’m trying to say, is that,” and here her words really did start to break down as the emotion set in, “I love you both so much. And… and the fact I found it hard, so hard to let go of a life where I was partying a lot and not responsible for anything, well.”
Andy felt the need to ask the key question for Nicky and his sake, even if it meant breaking their week-long silence,“But, you were forty when you coined the word!”
“Yeah I was, and you know what, I regret it. I wasn’t still depressed at forty, god I’d done a lot of growing up. I’m better for having you boys. I’m a happier person now. Having responsibility, even though I do get knackered sometimes, has helped me be a better person. But you see, the weird thing about being wordabled is that it happens to you once. But, we’re not one people. One person. You know what I’m trying to say, you change. And the word you might coin changes too. When I was younger, after we’d had you and times were really hard I made a pledge to myself that I would create a word that could stand as a testament to that dark time. And that I would honour it.
“The funny thing is, I think it’s worked, hasn’t it? To be able to think about it now and say – ‘do you know what I’ve moved on? It’s a horrible dark word representing a dark time, but that’s not me anymore.’ That’s kind of good isn’t it?”
Andy felt a tear in his eye, but he didn’t feel sad. His mum’s argument made sense to him. He smiled and kissed Janet and held her close. This person, this person in this warm flesh and blood body, who had at one time in her life experienced, wearust.
It took Nicky longer to get over it, because even with the threat of their mum not loving them annulled, the experience still brought him in to contact with a whole adult world of feeling he just didn’t want to deal with. Andy and Nicky spent the rest of the night playing computer games in Nicky’s room.
“So what word are you going to coin?” Andy asked, casually enough he hoped to sneak past Nicky’s defense system.
“Wearust,” Nicky paused the game and looked over to Andy, “it’s the exclamation you make whenever you want things to stop, so that you can make real contact with other people. No shit. It should be used by anyone in distress to relieve them from the anxiety that comes with being warn-out, especially mums.”
“That will never pass the concision test you know.”
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