The Words Department

By Steven Specht No comments

This is a short story that will be featured in Zunder Tales: Volume II, coming in the summer of 2021. If you like this story, consider buying Volume I in the link at the end and look out for Volume II later this year.


Ava Kennedy nervously clicked the top of a ballpoint pen. She clicked it faster like an engine revving up and then slowed down as if it were idling… She imagined that the click of the pen was the bolt of a rifle sliding into place. She stood up, raised her pen as if to sight it in to shoot an invisible target, clicked the pen to mimic the sound of firing…

She imagined she was tapping out an urgent message in morse code, short clicks and long clicks for a language she knew once existed but had been out of use for years.

She moved to a computer and typed random letters, comparing the sound of the typing to the clicking of the pen.

If she could get this right, she’d be up for a promotion to oversee whatever branch of the Words Department she wanted. If she didn’t, she was going to quit her job and move on to something with more upward mobility.

The Words Department was a subordinate office in the Ministry of Semantics, a cabinet level position. The job was to create new words as necessary to better capture the diversity of language.

If you’ve ever thought “we need a word for this,” the Words Department was the place to submit your request.

Are you feeling guilt at having never opened a gift from a beloved relative? You could submit a request for the Words Department to create the word that captures that feeling. They even update the dictionary twice a year.

Want to know the word that describes the reaction to taking a bite of food that is a little too hot? You are in luck as the word “lourf” as added to the official dictionary in 2027.

Lourf- lau̇(-ə)rf v.t.- the act of cooling a bite of food in one’s mouth by widening cheeks, rapidly exhaling, and shaking it about. The food was so hot I had to lourf for a minute.

Ava had grown up wanting to work for the words department and it was the first job she’d taken after graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in English literature and a minor in French. She had been something of a prodigy in her first few years having come up with a word that was sorely needed and adopted with extreme popularity.

Frenck- fr-əŋk n. 1. the sense of frustration when an electronic device warns of a malfunction with a beep or other tone. 2. The act of an electronic device warning of a malfunction with a beep or tone. The printer frencked that it was out of toner.

Frenck became ubiquitous as a description of a low battery warning on a cell phone on a cell phone, or the continual beep of a microwave long after the food was cooked. The word had taken on a life of its own with “on the frenck” replacing “on the fritz” to describe any device that was not working properly.

Other words had been successful too, though not as much as frenck. She was fond of her creation of the term “Generation Loss” which described the loss of information that occurred as a generation with specialized knowledge began dying off. This could be something as her grandfather’s career as a telex operator and something as banal as a prank call in an era of Universal Caller ID.

Despite her early successes and love for the job, Ava had become disillusioned in recent years.

Her direct supervisor, Cecily Johnson had a Masters in German Literature and was obsessed with komposita, the German habit of making endless portmanteaus to create new nouns. She pushed this on her subordinates mercilessly.

Ava’s first performance review had been devastating.

“Ms. Kennedy is an enthusiastic employee, but unfit for the words department. All her creations are onomatopoeic in nature, derived from the supposed sound of the action. Had I been her supervisor during her “frenck” success, I would have discouraged its adoption, its subsequent popularity notwithstanding.”

 The battle between Ava and Cecily wasn’t only professional in nature. Ava grew to hate everything about her. She hated the clicking of her heels when she entered a room. She hated that Cecily had the emphasis on the second syllable, making her always have to pause a millisecond as to not mispronounce it. She also hated her for insisting on a first-name basis so she couldn’t just get away with calling her Ms. Johnson.

After a few months of battling professionally and privately, Ava realized that she would have to go-along to get-along and started pumping out kompisita for everything, waiting for the time when she could run her own shop.

Because she had been working on feelings when she created frenck, they kept her in that office.

The feeling of satisfaction at finishing a book was “buchendgluck.”

The depression of having finished a series in a television show was “serekomp.”

Ava was particularly bitter about “dankeluft” which described the sensation of relief when company had departed and one could finally pass gas. Luft ultimately was onomatopoeic in nature, when considering the hissing escape of pent-up flatulence. That she was scolded for using onomatopoeias and ended up with one anyway ate at her.

To add insult to injury, the public didn’t particularly like her kompista attempts and refused to adopt them, leaving her with more negative performance reviews.

She was professionally fettered yet still held accountable for the popularity of her words. Such a paradox.

The sense of urgency was palpable now, for Cecily was out on six months of maternity leave and during that time, Ava had a supervisor who was more amenable to her style of doing things.

He didn’t care what system she used, as long as she got results.

She’d been pumping out a word each week and getting the performance reviews to back up her efforts.

The English language now had a word for the glee of destroying the paper on a carefully wrapped Christmas gift.

One could now describe the rush of endorphins and anxiety that came when constantly checking for an expected text message. Here, she even begrudgingly went with a portmanteau, the closest thing to English to the komposita.

Schrodintext- shrā|diŋ-tekst n. The simultaneous sense of relief and dismay upon opening a message system and realizing that a message is or is not there.

Her accomplishments racked up and so did the admiration of her temporary boss who had already written up her advancement package. This last entry was going to be what make or break her advancement attempts and once and for all she would be out from under Cecily.

So, here she was, frantically clicking a pen to figure out the word the people needed.