The Words Department
This is a short story that will be featured in Just Comply, a collection of short stories forthcoming in the summer of 2021. It was originally intended to be a follow-on for my first collection, Zunder Tales. If you like this story, consider buying that Zunder Tales as it will help with some of the stories in Just Comply once it is published. The link to Zunder Tales is at the end of this story.
Ava Canady sat in her office, nervously clicking the top of a ballpoint pen.
She clicked it faster like an engine revving up. She gradually clicked slower, the imaginary RPMs reducing and then steadying to an idle speed.
She stopped clicking for a moment. Then she stood slowly, raising the pen up with both arms, pretending it was a tiny rifle. She clicked the pen, imagining a bolt sliding closed. She clicked again, firing at an imaginary target.
She sat. She closed her eyes, her life flashing before her as she depressed the detonator in that scene from that old timey space movie with Bruce Willis.
She opened her eyes, imagining that she was typing out an urgent message in morse code.
She actually knew morse code, one of the few people left alive who could communicate in that curiosity that had been phased out years ago. Her grandfather had been in signals in the army and taught it to her and her sisters.
She tapped out a message.
“.. / -. . . -.. / – .- -.-. — …”
As she tapped the code, she furrowed her brow, imagining that the nation’s sovereignty was at stake. In reality, she was just typing out “I need tacos.”
Ava’s job was to create new words. She worked in The Words Department.
Officially it was called The Department of Neologisms and it waws a subordinate office in the Ministry of Semantics. Colloquially, it was referred to as the Words Department. You didn’t say you worked in the Department of Neologisms, you just said Words Department. However, business cards said Department of Neologisms.
The mission of the department was simple, create new words that best capture the diversity of the human/language and experience.
If this sounds weird as a concept, then ask yourself how many times you’ve needed a word to describe an emotion, a feeling, a concept, etc. If you’ve awkwardly said, “we need a word for that,” then boom, you understand the need for a Department of Neologisms. They take requests online and by mail.
For example. Have you ever received a gift from a loved one but never even opened it? It sits in your closet and every time you go in, you feel just a little guilty? You’ve been kondoed! That word was added in 2040 and it captures that exact feeling of reception guilt.
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” was added to the official dictionary in 2037.
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.
They even update the dictionary twice a year, though they no longer provide physical copies as The Unabridged Guide to the English Language would take up an entire room.
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 creating “frenck” an amazingly popular word that had come into immediate use.
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, 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.
Many of her 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 disappearing information when the generation who knew it began dying off. She felt like it was an homage to her Morse-code typing grandfather that she was able to create this word almost exactly a year after his death.
Generation loss could describe something as important as a morse-code operator or 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, Shea Johnson had a Masters in German Literature and was obsessed with komposita, the German habit of making endless portmanteaus to create new nouns. Shea pushed this on her subordinates mercilessly.
Ava’s first performance review had been devastating.
“Ms. Canady 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 Shea wasn’t only professional in nature.
Ava grew to hate everything about her.
She hated the clicking of Shea’s heels when she entered a room.
She hated that Shea pronounced her name She-Uh rather than Shay and rudely corrected anyone who made the mistake of pronouncing it as it had always been pronounced.
Her hate over the persnickety name made her even angrier, because as someone who worked in The Words Department, she should cherish the flexibility of language and honor that Shea was pronounced in a manner that made just as much sense the historical way of saying it.
After a few months at loggerheads, Ava developed a go-along-to-get-along attitude and started pumping out komposita 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, the German word for air, in the context of “dankeluft” was itself onomatopoeic when considering the hissing escape of pent-up flatulence.
It ate at her that her performance reviews chastised her for using onomatopoeias and yet here she was using one to make komposita.
To add insult to injury, the public at large didn’t like her attempts at komposita.
If you created a word that didn’t get picked up in general usage, it would be dropped. While “frenck” had been revolutionary, buchengluck and serekomp had been complete failures.
So, she was left with more negative performance reviews, professionally fettered yet still held accountable for her words not becoming popular.
She wished there were a word for that. The Catch-22 of a working in an office that wouldn’t give you the tools to succeed and then held you accountable for your own failure. Maybe after she was fired, she could submit a request for the right word to use on her resume when describing why she’d left the Words Department. Maybe fettergluck?
All this angst changed when Shea went on a year of maternity leave and she had a temporary supervisor who was a little less strict. Vanessa didn’t care how she did what she did, as long as she got good results from her word creations.
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 went with a pseudo-German portmanteau, grudgingly acknowledging that Shea’s methods weren’t all bad.
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.
Vanessa had also been something of a mentor to her, allowing her to transcend both the komposita and onomatopoeia methods of word creation.
“You can go with a complete nonsense word to capture the sense of something. Everything in language is inherently arbitrary. Look out the window. Do you see that tree?
“Is it an oak?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“It just is.”
“Exactly. It’s an oak because we say its an oak. You and I know that there is an etymological history going back to German and from there to proto-German, but the general public doesn’t care. They just want to say oak. Hell, half of them don’t even know it’s an oak tree and would just say “tree.”
“Ironic, given that that is what oak meant 2,000 years ago. It was just the dominant tree.”
“There you go. Would you like to work with me on a word?”
“Sure. I’d be honored.”
“Here read the description.”
Ava picked up the slip of paper detailing the request and held it up to read it.
Dear Words Department.
The other day my girlfriend picked me up from a minor surgery.
Hospital rules were that even though it was a outpatient procedure,
you had to have someone else drive you home. She doesn’t have a car,
so she picked me up in MY car. I’ve never been a passenger in my own
car and it was incredibly strange and unnerving. Is there a word for that?
If not, could you create one?
She put down the letter and looked at Vanessa.
“So what are you thinking about?”
“What do you mean.”
“Close your eyes.”
“Think of a man who is a little woozy from pain killers. He’s nervous. His girlfriend is probably not a great driver. She doesn’t even own a car. He’s used to being in control.”
“Picture him using an invisible brake as he pulls up to a traffic light.”
“Now, this is the important part. Clear your head. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three, I want you to shout out whatever sound comes to mind.”
“1… 2… 3!”
“Ha ha! Buskbutt?”
“That’s what I thought. It just came to me. Like he is wiggling in his seat and he needs a shower and wishes he had just taken the bus!”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s arbitrary. Charles from… where is he from again?”
“Charles from Walthamstow just wants an expert to provide a word. You don’t need to explain your methods. Buskbutt it is!”
That conversation had been months ago and her accomplishments had been racking up ever since. Vanessa had already put in an advancement package, but she needed one last successful word. That’s where she was today, trying to come up with something to describe the sound of the metal tube of a clickable pin sliding into the spring. Soon she would never have to worry about Shea again.
So, she clicked the pen, clicked it some more… Vanessa walked in.
“How’s it going?”
“Hey Vanessa! Same as yesterday, trying to come up with this word for the clicking sound of a pen.”
“I just got a report on schrodintext.”
“It’s been used more than 3,000 times in two weeks. I think you have another winner.”
“Here’s to Shea.”
“She’s the one who pushed all that German stuff on me and it’s the biggest winner I’ve had since she became my supervisor.”
“She’s not all bad Ava.”
“Easy for you to say, you’ve never worked for her.”
“I’ve had my share of bosses though. The good ones make you rise to the occasion, and I think you have.”
“How are you treating the pen click request?”
“Well, I’ve been thinking an onomatopoeia. Something that sounds like metal on metal. My first instinct was “shlank.”
“What does the request look like?”
“Here, you can read it.”
Dear Words Department,
I work at a sports store and have a request for a new word. I sell those party canopy
tents you see people have at the beach or sporting events. The poles are put together
with a little silver pin on a spring that pops out of a hole when you slide the poles
together. I want a word to describe the sliding pinging sound of the pin sliding into the hole.
Sports Direct, London Branch
“What have you done so far?”
“Well, I’ve imagined the thrust device on the ballpoint pen is similar to the pin on the tent pole. I’ve just been clicking away.”
“Have you ever put together one of those tents?”
“No, not really.”
“The sound of the pin sliding in place in the tent pole is much more resonant, because the tent poles are hollow. I’m not sure the ballpoint is doing you justice.”
“Well, it’s what I have.”
“Well, the thing he is describing is called a spring clip. If you’ve ever broken down a tent pole on the inside, it’s a folded piece of flat metal with a soldered pin on the end.”
“That’s what it’s called.”
“Huh, I never knew that.”
“Beauty of being in the words department these last 20 years is knowing all the words. Even the tent salesman didn’t use the right term.”
“Ha, I see.”
“I tell you what, I was kayaking on the Thames this weekend. Never unpacked my kayak paddle. It’s the same device, the spring clip and pin are adjustable depending on the angle you want your paddle. Let’s take a look.”
Ava followed Vanessa out to the parking lot.
“You got a Land Rover? What happened to the Peugeot?”
“I wanted something nicer. Getting a little bonus for picking up Shea’s work so I thought I’d upgrade. My dear husband is driving the sad little Peugeot. Now, let me see that paddle.”
Vanessa pulled the paddle from the back of the car and held it up.
“You see here are the two sections. Here is the pin that our tent salesman is talking about. That’s attached to the spring clip inside. I have my paddles feathered so I don’t catch the wind when I’m paddling. People just starting out usually don’t feather their paddles so it’s set up that you can adjust it when you are ready.”
“Listen to the pin sliding in.”
“You are right. It does sound more resonant, but I think whatever word we use here, COULD describe the sound of the ballpoint thruster as well.”
“Well now you are on to something. If the same word can be used multiple ways, it’s more likely to stick.”
“Well, we have the spring clip pin; we have the ball point; I imagine that the bolt on a rifle sounds similar.”
“You’re right. Again, more resonant than a ballpoint but same basic sound.”
“Really, the primary sound is of two telescoping pieces of metal. The thruster of the ballpoint sliding into the tube. The spring clip pin, sliding into the hole, the bolt sliding along the rifle.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Well, I still need the word.”
“I’ll think you’ll get it.”
“Let me think on it. Thanks for the help Tom.”
She played around with the kayak paddle a few more times and realized that the sound of two tubes sliding together was a subtle form of glissando, the sliding change of pitch one got from a playing with one of those children’s slide whistles.
Glisslock – glis-lok n. The sound of telescoping tubes sliding into place or the sound of a pin sliding into a hole.
The word was picked up quickly. She would never again have to work with Shea.