I got them! It took me seven years, three jobs, two marriages, and season tickets to the Red Sox, but I got them. He knew it as soon as he looked up and saw me; knew who I was even though he had never seen me.
“You found us,” he said. “How nice.”
I noted the ‘us’ and I noted him. He was lean with jet-
“Now, now, is there really need for that?”
“I’ll decide,” I said. “I’m calling the shots.”
The smile returned. “You’re punny,” he said.
He should have known I would not like a joke like that. I pulled the hammer back on the gun, and his smile faded.
“There is no need for this,” he said, trying to maintain his smile. “Mr...?
I ignored the question and scanned the room. I had no training in detective work, but I had gotten good at noticing things during the last seven years. He sat at a desk in the center of the room. On the desk lay a stack of manila folders, a black laptop, and a tattered copy of a Richard Matheson short story collection. Behind the desk were bookshelves with dictionaries and thesauruses, encyclopedias and bibliographies, histories of English, theories of language, similar books. I grinned triumphantly at those books, shot him a disapproving look, and then continued to scan the room. Two other walls had similar shelves with similar books. The fourth wall had a table with two chairs. There was food on the table
He saw me staring. “You are hungry,” he said. “Please, eat. Eat!”
I was hungry. I had left Boston for Minneapolis over twelve hours earlier: a four-
I was also tired. I had not slept on the flight or the bus. This loss just added to years of sleep deprivation as I searched for them. Most of the search was by computer, in my office, tracing threads of conversations in blogs, on list-
When I got a lead, I would leave almost immediately to find that place where the word emerged. I would hop on a plane, a train, or a bus; or, first a plane, then a train, and then a bus. Whichever it was, the last leg of the trip usually involved a long walk and then a couple of hours prowling around an isolated house or a cluster of houses in some rural spot. I did not always get the right house or the right town, and I was arrested five times
This last time I had been ready for them. I had kept watch for almost 48 hours straight, catnapping in my office chair between cups of coffee, watching the content monitors and site trackers do their work on my three computers. Then I saw it. The culprit was the word “abroadness”
I scanned the room again, taking it all in
I could not hold back the laughter. Then the laughter became a cry of relief, and then the relief became rage. Tears ran down my face. I did not know I was falling until my knees hit the floor. I reached out for something to grab, and found his waiting hands.
“Here, here,” he said as he led me to one of the chairs by the table. He took the gun gently from my hand, returned the hammer, and then placed it on my lap.
“You are exhausted. Drink this. Drink.”
I found a cup of coffee in my hand. It was a dark roast, extra cream, no sugar, just the way I liked it.
“You must eat,” he said as he began filling one of the plates. A pepper and cheese omelet, thick bacon, Italian toast, and hash browns, my favorites.
I sat and ate in silence, and he sat and watched me silently. After a while, he spoke. “More coffee?”
He poured each of us another cup. It had lost some of its freshness by now. He shot me a wry grin. “Shall we ‘correct’ it?” Before I could answer, he reached under the table to pull out a bottle of grappa. He showed me the label: Le Diciotto Lune Stravecchia Grappa. Good stuff. The guy had style and class, I’ll give him that. We sipped and when we were done, he spoke again.
“We have not had a proper introduction. I am Norman Ward. My friends call me Norman
“Anthony Alberto,” I said. “My friends call me Tony, or Talberto.”
He smiled. “Feel better?”
“Yes.” I smiled too. “Sorry about the gun,” I added as I put it awkwardly in my coat pocket.
I heard a sparrow singing near the window.
He spoke: “You were quite angry. I thought you might do something rash.”
“You didn’t seem worried,” I said.
“Appearances can be deceptive.”
I paused, and then asked: “You knew I was coming?”
The sparrow was now on a tree right outside the window.
“We knew. We have our sources.” He seemed to nod towards the window, towards the sparrow, but it had to have been my imagination.
“And you are a ‘we’?” I wanted confirmation.
I ignored the jokes. “But you are the ones. You are the makers of the words, right?”
He hesitated for a fraction of a second. “Yes.”
I slumped back in the chair. “They thought I was crazy, you know. All of them. They prescribed medication; they fired me; they even threatened to commit me.”
“I know,” he said with much sympathy.
“I suffered a lot,” I said. “It was not fair.”
“It was not fair.” He paused, and then, “However, you were rather intense about it.”
I wrinkled my brow, but he pressed me. “Staying in your office for weeks on end, asking your colleagues to cover missed classes when you left to follow a lead?”
“I had to keep constant watch, and when I got a clue, I had to leave immediately. I was always good at returning the favor.”
He persisted. “Kicking the tables in the tutoring area because the custodial staff forgot to rearrange them after a meeting?”
“They were blocking my office door. I had a content analyzer running. I apologized to the facilities supervisor.”
He was relentless. “Grabbing the Dean in a headlock and threatening to throw him out the window because he advised you to seek professional help?”
“He had been an amateur wrestler, so it was not like I was picking on a weaker guy.”
His eyebrows went up.
“I didn’t throw him out the window.”
“Because the campus police burst in.”
“There were no charges filed,” I said sheepishly.
“And what about your two previous teaching positons? Your last marriage? And those Red Sox tickets. Shall we discuss the Red Sox tickets?”
“Okay.” I conceded. “Maybe I did go overboard. But for a cause,” I added. “An important cause.”
“The words,” he said. “The words. They really matter to you. These words?”
I nodded, less defensive now. “Of course they do. How could they not? I am a writing teacher.”
“Yes, yes.” He chuckled. “You are, indeed you are.” His face held mirth and admiration. He went on: “Tell me one of them.”
I was confused for a moment. “One of what?”
“One of those words. The words that matter so much to you.”
Some other part of me answered. “Relatable.”
“Ah,” he said. “Among the worst offenders. To relate as in having a sense of feeling or connection with; to empathize with something. As when your students say, ‘I liked the story. It was relatable.’ ”
“And the claim against it?”
I recited it as I had recited it so many times in class, and with the same opprobrium: “Only transitive verbs can take the suffix ‘able’ to form an adjective. Used as in the sense of something you can relate to, feel connected to, etc., the verb ‘relate’ is non-
His eyes sparkled as I spoke. He was enjoying this. He replied. “Yet we can relate a story to someone. Moreover, we can relate a lion to a cat. So the story is relatable and the lion and cat are relatable. But neither is something we can feel empathy for?”
He confused me with that. “Ah, no, they are transitive
“All true,” he said. “And for a long time, for centuries in fact, that truth held sway. The word relatable was used in the first two senses alone.” He paused. “Then things changed. The word changed. In the 1940s. People started to use it in a new way. ‘To relate’ began to mean, ‘to understand, to empathize with.’ It appeared here and there with this new verbal meaning. But used as an adjective, as in ‘the story was relatable,’ that only began in 1965, when dear Walter B. Waetjen, in a journal called Theory into Practice, wrote that ‘boys saw teachers as more directive, while girls saw them as more “relatable”...’ Since then, well, it has grown and spread and is now so relatable as to be inexpungeable.”
“Not in my classroom,” my words were fierce.
He looked pointedly at me. “Why? Why? Because ‘only transitive verbs can take the suffix “able” ’?” He said this in a fair imitation of me, which I have to admit brought a smile to my lips. He went on. “You and I know there are other intransitive verbs that were once similarly restricted, yet now are freely used as any transitive verb. Reliable, for example. On what grounds do we allow ‘reliable’ but stop ‘relatable’
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. I did know about ‘reliable.’ A student had in fact brought it up once in class. It was not a pleasant memory. However, I did not understand the freedom part. Words were not free, not by nature. Restrictions were necessary. Restrictions give meaning. I had dedicated my academic life to restricting words.
He answered his own question: “Is not the real reason simply that we have used it in this manner in the past? Or that we first used it this way? Argumentum ad antiquitatem and genetic fallacy. Is this what you would defend?”
I was not ready to concede. “Well. I can see the logic here. You are talking about meaning. Meaning shifts. However, meaning is one thing; form is another. ‘Relatable’ is not like”
“You think so. Well. Let us consider it: ‘Based on’ vs. ‘based off.’ Yes, an epic battle. First, the claim: The verb ‘to base’ means ‘to form a foundation for,’ while the noun ‘base’ is used for the underlying part upon which something rests.”
“Right. ‘Rests on,’ ” I said, “Not ‘rests off.’ ”
He ignored my superior tone. “Correct. And thus on these grounds we say that we build something on and not off a foundation, and we say ‘based on’ because it conforms to the literal meaning of the word.”
I had made this argument so many times in class he could have been quoting me.
“However, second, consider a counter claim: Building a structure is not quite the same as building an argument. The former is physical while the latter conceptual. A builder builds on a foundation, but a student plans in the mind. There is ‘brainstorming.’ A thought emerges. The student ponders it. Goes over it. Wraps their mind around it. Then it takes off, it grows, ferments, takes form, and then, presto: we get ‘based off’!
My head was whirling, but I managed to speak, “It is a solecism.”
“An idiom, Talberto. An idiom. They are all around us. Everywhere.” He gave me a close look. “Are these really the monsters you want to slay?”
I retreated into a wounded silence. He went on.
“Did you know that ‘based off’ first appeared in the magazine called National Petroleum News in 1931?”
“Yes. It is true.”
“Who was the author?”
“Unnamed,” he replied.
“Ah. Then unsung.”
“No, no, not exactly.”
I looked up when he said that. I had not thought much about his age. The dynamism and charisma that he displayed bespoke a man much younger than he appeared, but as I studied him anew, I noted the thinning eyebrows, heavy lids, and shallow cheeks. There were spots on the back of his hands, and a slight slumping at the shoulders. I felt some sympathy for him.
But his next words shook me: “Why are you here, Talberto?”
I opened my mouth to answer but nothing came out. I had searched for years and found them. Now what? I stared blankly at him.
“You do not know, do you? The means became your end, and now at the end you do not know what you mean to do.”
He just loved to play with words. That snapped me out of it. “I know what I mean to do. I mean to show them I was right. And I mean to stop you. How is that for meaning?”
He paused and thought about it. Then he said. “OK. All right. What shall we do? Shall I walk with you into the Dean’s office and say, ‘I am the one he has been looking for; I am the one who makes the words’?”
I was silent.
“Or, if you like, to make it legal, I can write a confession for you. ‘Dear Dean, I am the one. We are the ones. We invent words and put them in the minds of students to drive writing instructors crazy.’ I will write it for you. Moreover, I will sign and certify it. How about that?”
The word “certify” got me. I would get certified all right. Certified insane. He knew how to make a point.
I stammered. “Then
He read the thought. “Now, now,” he said. “Is it so bad? You did find us. That matters.”
“But no one will ever know.”
He shook his head. “You know. That matters?”
I thought about it for a minute. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” He misunderstood me.
“I mean that I don’t really know. I know what you do. I want to know why you do it.”
He had been expecting this, of course.
“Do you really want to know? His eyes bored into mine.
I hesitated. I sensed a doorway opening up. Then I said it: “Yes.”
He nodded in approval. “You already know the core of the answer to what we do. We create words
“They don’t just run off,” I said.
He chuckled again. “Well, ah, well, we...
“And the why?”
He looked thoughtfully at me. “How is your Latin?”
“Usus est et ius et norma loquendi.”
I paused and thought. “Horace.”
He smiled at me with pride. “And in English?”
“The norm and rule of speech is usage.”
Still smiling, he corrected me: “Or, ‘Usage is the rule and norm of speaking.’ ”
“Compare that to Plato’s Cratylus
“ ‘Ỏνόματος ỏρθότητα εἶναι ἑκάστω τῶν ὄντων φύσει πεφυκυίαν’?”
I shook my head and his smile gave way to a look of disappointment. “It means ‘everything has a right name of its own, which comes by nature.’ ”
“Cratylus goes on to say that a name
“OK, it’s an old debate
The smile came back. “Excellent.” He really was pleased with me. “Well, they settled it in theory
I did not have to answer that one. I was there sitting in front of him.
“Your cause is a good one,” he said to me. “In principle. I understand it. I sympathize too, in a way. Words matter. So do rules, up to a point. But to think that one can stop words from changing, from evolving, is folly. And to try to stop them
“Yes, I know.” I had written a book on the grammarians.
“It was not a problem with Latin because Latin was no longer a spoken language. English was. And thus if English kept growing and changing without some countervailing force then communication across generations would be inhibited
“Right,” I nodded.
“And so they set out to stabilize it. That was their purpose of their grammars and dictionaries. To stabilize, to preserve, to help. And their intentions, like yours, were good.”
I was quiet. His tone grew serious and his eyes darkened.
“But they erred in a crucial way. They confused change with corruption. Those who came after them were worse. They conjured up demons in the form of ‘words from below.’ They created moral panics and moral crusades. They set themselves up as authorities of usage.” He paused and added, enigmatically, “It was not the first time.” He went on, seemingly lost in the past. “It was not clear just how far they would go. If words can corrupt, then what about power? Think of the corruption that would come with power over words. Terrible. A countervailing force was needed.” He came back to the present. “And so, here we are.”
I took the ‘we’ to mean ‘we’ as in all of them and both of us. “Yes, here we are.”
I saw that twinkle return to his eyes. “Please do not think of us as a party in the petty squabble between the prescriptivists and the descriptivists.”
“No, of course not,” I said.
“Our cause is nobler.”
He gave me a solemn nod, and the next words came out as though he were quoting someone: “ ‘We see ourselves as an army of dedicated warriors marching on the strongholds of prudery.’ ”
“And morality. Against those who would link words to either the True or to the Good.”
I laughed, “Cratylus
He laughed too. “You are making progress, my friend.” He went on. “This is not to say we do not value the True and the Good. To the contrary, they motivate us mightily. But they do so as Virtue and Freedom rather than Truth and Justice.”
I tried to digest that as he went on.
“Words were meant to be free. They must run their course as they always have. Expressive, creative, and pioneering. As our words go so do we: Are we to be Natural or Unnatural, Human or Inhuman, locked in a Tower or let loose to Proliferate?” He paused and looked pointedly at me. “And if it means that sometimes we must put up with errors
The words caught me, and so did the look on his face. It seemed he was speaking of something else now. Deep it was, out of some distant past, and looking forward to some far future. He kept speaking.
“We have among us a long line of poets and bards, scholars and monks; songwriters and screenwriters; editors, journalists, and authors; famed linguists and web grammarians; bloggers, talk show hosts, producers, sportscasters
“Murray?!” I was truly shocked.
He laughed. “The ‘incidental method.’ Write a book of grammar in which you tell your reader that it is not only grammatically wrong to use a certain word, phrase, or form, but also morally wrong
I shook my head, amazed at the scope of it all.
He continued. “I could name more names for you, from the past to the present, though there are some both then and now who insist on anonymity. I think you understand.”
I did. He kept talking.
“The internet has made it easier. Before the internet, we had to do it the old-
I perked up at that. “You led me here.”
“Because you are known to us. The qualities that brought you here are the very ones we seek: an ‘unflagging devotion to obscure but always worthy causes...
“I see.” I let the words out slowly. “But still the why?”
“You still do not fully understand, do you?”
I shook my head. “No.”
He looked at me now with affection. “We want you to join us.”
“Me. Wait. I don’t
He did not press me. Instead, he spoke gently. “I understand. You need time to think about it. Do so. You know how to find us now. However, keep in mind the value of our work and the opportunity it presents to you. In a way, it is what you have always wanted, is it not?”
I was silent; we both knew the answer.
He stood up and led me to the door, his hands behind his back as he spoke.
“I would make it clear to you that we are all volunteers. There is no salary
I smiled at the thought of a trophy for making up words. When we reached the door, he held out his hand.
Then, before he let go, with that twinkle back in his eyes he said one more thing: “Just remember the words of dear Edward Brerewood, who already in 1674 could write that people ‘...grow weary of old words as of old things.’ ”
I did not give a reply because he did not want one. Instead, I walked out the door. I heard it shut behind me as I went down the steps. I walked over to the gate and stopped. There was a rubbish barrel to the right. I lifted the lid and tossed the gun inside it. Then, I looked out at the world. The sparrow was on a tree across the road, quiet and staring at me. The clouds were clearing and the mist was all but gone from the fields. Rising ahead of me, above the road I had travelled, the sun was shining forth, brilliant and resplendent. The light of a new day. And, for me, a new beginningness.