He captured the first word in a hot viscous jam, and picked up another word on the way to the zooquarium. Aviary, the first word, caught apiary, and they buzzed around in great confusion, the jam drying on the cursives, keeping them from ascending for quite some time. Excellent pay on this one, the wordhunter thought. Flying words were harder to catch unless they were hungry for getting caught.
He had his own secret trick for catching them —pausing at a point in a sentence, defining the word, as if he couldn’t think of it, so the word was forced to hover, ever closer, anxious to be remembered. It got near enough to be trapped on a special line, and the line could sometimes pick up other things as well. The wordhunter always used a line to pick up things. That was the beauty: you couldn’t start a line without finishing; you couldn’t say a word without saying another word.
As words increased, the world finally got overrun with words. Bad enough to go out in the morning, where words about the time and the news jittered everywhere, and leftover words followed quarrelers with their dearie-do and fiddle-me-please—such things wrinkling your suit fast and catching your heel’s spikes. Sticky. Smelly.
The world used words in utterly annoying ways, so the populace voted (in very carefully written propositions) to exile certain words. “Iconic” was an easy cull, as was “awesome” and “literally”; “like” was much harder, since there was no real way to differentiate between actual meaning and verbal filler. But it eventually went the way of “evildoers” and, surprisingly, “transparency.”
Politicians proclaimed that half the words in the world needed culling, though selected words would be caught and housed protectively in case some went amok and killed each other. Nonsense! Since when did words kill each other? They were talking about the gangs catching words in the wild, ripping the ink right out of them, wearing them on the shoulder, forehead, and over the eye. Some took the curves and some took the strokes. The wordhunter had no particular love for words or anything else. Gangs swaggered around, thinking they had some power from those trashed words. They even rubbed the bits and pieces together to see if they came up with anything interesting. Different groups had outlawed different words, and there were territorial divisions. And outlaws, liberating words, resurrected their meaning.
The wordhunter preferred riding down words and capturing them, the rare ones, especially, and bringing them in, lashed to his burro. He had “reprobate,” “verisimilitude,” “prehensile,” on his current list—all recognizable words and easy to get paid for. But when he’d hunkered down and gone and got “jeremiad,” “proboscis,” “devolution,” the zooquarium front-gaters said he was making them up. They’d had to check the Book to substantiate his claims. He’d bypassed words like “friable,” “verdigris,” “spongiform”: words spoken by his grandparents long ago, educated people who loved rare words and knew their value. He’d inherited a certain respect from them, but it was tempered with greed.
The wordhunter encountered his first word of the day—who identified herself as a “reprobate”—while out searching for “totally.” He’d caught sight of it running up a hill and behind a rock but when he got there, he found someone whittling wood.
“Nothing’s really true until it’s written down,” she said, handing him the wood, his name carved into it.
“My name’s written on every official piece of paper I get,” he said. “I don’t need you to make it true.”
“You want me to get rid of it?” she said.
“Who are you? I mean, what do you do, speaking philosophically?”
“Call that a philosophical question?” she said, standing up, dusting herself off. “I’m a starter. I start rumors, I start trends, I start popular phrases.” She had clear gray eyes, large eyes; an even larger nose; hair that stood out sideways; a little potbelly.
“All by yourself?”
“I have my fingers on the pulse of the zeitgeist,” she said. “That word is still around, isn’t it? Or should I put a quarter in a swear jar somewhere?”
“‘Zeitgeist’ just made it through the last vote,” he said. “What rumor are you starting?”
She smiled an all-teeth smile. “Consequences,” she said. “Rumor has it the more words you take away, the less power you have.”
“What kind of power?”
“See, that never comes up,” she said, shaking her head. “People always feel they don’t have power. It’s an all-purpose rumor. Soon there will be raids on the imprisoned words.” She cocked her head at him. “Know what happens to words after you bring them in?”
“No,” he said, the question making him uneasy. “I don’t have to know what happens to them. Not my job. None of my business.”
“Ever find yourself looking for a word and you can’t think of it?”
He sighed, heavily. He shouldn’t let himself get trapped in this conversation. Words had a life of their own and not all lives were good or equally valuable. He knew that. Everyone knew that. The decisions were made by someone else. Voted on by all. Perfectly legitimate. Essentially amoral.
“Eventually, I find a word that’s good enough to get the idea across,” he finally answered. “As long as you get the idea across, the word you end up with is the right word.”
“Superstition,” she said. “Let’s say there’s a word for something that has three legs, not four.”
“There’s nothing that has three legs, not four.”
“Because there’s no word for it?”
“It’s the other way around,” he said patiently. “If there were a thing with three legs, not four, we’d make a word for it.”
“Tripedalism,” she said brightly, “is locomotion on three legs. We have a word for it.”
He studied her intently. “We’ve lost the context,” he said. “You’re an outlaw and a rumor-starter. I collect illegal words. In a way, we’re concerned with the same things.”
“You know they just ship the words to other areas?” she said, looking over his shoulder.
“Why would they do that?”
“Because it’s iconic.”
“That word,” he murmured, frowning. “I know that word.”
“That word was forbidden two years ago. I didn’t mind losing it, because it was annoying. It needed time to rest.”
“But you just used it.”
“And I almost recognized it.” His eyes traveled the air around them. “But I don’t see it.”
“No. You won’t. A lot of words escape and get good at hiding. They go right over their captors’ heads. I find them and I start using them again—and there are a lot of people like me.”
“People have noticed there’s a pattern to the missing words. They’re saying there are only about a hundred words in use today, and there used to be thousands. There used to be lots of extra words, words with texture and density. Toothsome.” She eyed him again, smiling her smile. “Okay, that one’s still allowed. Even the poor could use rich words, before. But now you can only use what they tell you to use.” She lowered her voice. “There’s a war going on. A war of words. My side’s freeing words. And my side is growing.”
The wordhunter recalled how large language used to be but also how poor he’d been then anyway. He was enriched by words.
“This business is toxic,” she said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“See? You don’t understand because the words are lost. Every word has an opposite. Hot, Cold. Summer, Winter. Liberal, Conservative. You know where you are, because of the words.”
“You know where you are because of the people,” he corrected her.
“What’s the opposite of people?” she asked, and he frowned.
“We don’t need it,” he said. “There is no opposite. People. No people. Perfectly clear.”
“But people are saying they’ve had enough. They miss the ability to choose from many words, they don’t want to live under an oligarchy of words,” she said.
“Oligarchy’s a perfectly fine word. You said it like it isn’t.”
“It’s on the list to go,” she said. “Check it out.”
His fingers twitched. He didn’t recall seeing it on the list, but he would give her no satisfaction.
“Look over that ridge,” she said. “Do you see that dust? That dust has a particular name and it tells you if it’s caused by wind or wild horses or a battalion of tanks. Those have names, too.”
“I don’t think those words existed,” he said. “There would be no reason to get rid of them.”
“It’s a cyclonic wind,” she said. He was studying the dust. “I think it’s just wind,” he said. “And I think it’s good enough to say a cloud of dust, because then we’ll study it. Till it arrives, we won’t know anyway.”
“It’s the counter-revolution,” she said. “My people are releasing all the words, and those are the words, and they are coming for you.” Sticking her chin up, she hooked her hands on her sharp hip bones, and he had a feeling of destiny, a word that had no open spaces around it, a trap-word.
He took a moment to settle himself. “Have a gun?” he asked.
“I have three words for my gun,” he said, taking it out, “before I shoot it—‘aiming’—when I shoot—‘firing’—and after I shoot—‘reloading.’ These words are all available. So which word will you choose?”
Her eyes locked on his eyes, his gun cocked and ready to fire.
“The word is the same as the deed,” she whispered, his pupils dilating then contracting. “Nonsense,” he said, shooting over her shoulder.
“Unfair!” she said, flinching. “I’m unarmed, defenseless.”
Sighing, he shot her in the toe. She yelped and hopped.
“Tripedal!” she cried out, and he bound her with sticky string, cocooning her as she shouted out words.
“Reprobate,” he said, admiring her. “One of the toughest words I’ve ever encountered.”
“You may have me, but you’ve left all the rebels behind,” she said, and he looked at the rocks and trees and saw here a hand moving and there an eye peering out. Holstering his gun, the wordhunter hoisted her on his mule. “One word a day is good enough,” he said, leading her to her fate.
Sauntering into the sunset, he thought of how words escaped, sometimes to the wild or even secretly to town, and he hoped she would escape someday.
She flailed and excoriated him. She was toxic, he thought, not blinking when the word entered his brain, but he made note of it. She had released the word, which would breed and explode in the wild, as words did, when left unchecked.