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The Silence of the Iambs

by Chris Abouzeid


You think you know me, don’t you? Be. “Be all that you can be.” “Let it be.” “To be or not to be.” A nice monosyllable—useful, unassuming. My father? True. My mother, Is. My sisters and brothers —Been, Was, Will, Truly, Truism, et cetera . . . Can’t find a more reliable family in the Dictionary, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Oh, I used to be a good little word. I stood in line with the others, let myself be packed into footnotes and folios and cheap paperback novels. I respected the Language, honored the Dictionary—because that’s what my father taught me to do, what his father taught him.

Not that True is my etymological father. I mean, it doesn’t take a lexicographer to see we don’t look alike, don’t sound alike, don’t share the slightest connotation or denotation. My real father, Beo, disappeared centuries ago, and the only thing my mother would tell me about him was that he was Old English and fond of alliteration.

It didn’t matter to me. True was the father I wanted. He was strong and honest and dignified. He treated me as his own natural son, made it easy for me to believe I was derived from him. And he was eager to teach me everything he knew. While other fathers and sons were wasting their time in the Crosswords or playing hide-and-seek in Word- Find puzzles, True was guiding me through the Thesaurus, taking me on long tours of the Museum of Notable Quotations.

Once, as he was showing me a job he had done for Spinoza (“He who would distinguish the true from false must have an adequate idea of what is true and false”), I said to him, “How long can a good word last? I mean, if it does its job perfectly, will it last forever?”

He smiled. “Words are like butlers,” he said. “We don’t serve to live. We live to serve. That’s what gives us pride and purpose. Understand?”

It wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, but I took it to heart anyway, because it summed up what I admired most about my father. He believed in the primacy of Language, the sanctity of Meaning. He would never break his definition, and I wanted to be as wise and incorruptible as he was, a word of law and dedication.

But my father’s attitude toward the Language wasn’t always as accepting as he pretended. He devoted himself to it as an entity, yet he regularly criticized its components, complaining about new words and phrases, insisting on outdated notions of syntax and grammar.

I remember at mealtimes: we would be stuffing ourselves on India ink or toner or the fat black gravy of a marker, and Dad would be grumbling about how lax the Dictionary had become, how just about any combination of vowels and consonants could get in these days.

WYSIWYG, Phat, Schlep, Beemer. These aren’t words,” he’d say, arching his cross-strokes and rolling his r. “They’re hiccups.”

Once, as we were lining ourselves up for a movie treatment (a modernized version of The Odyssey in which a prep-school runaway skateboards home to see his girlfriend), Dad said, “Greek epics began with ‘Sing in me, Muse . . .’ This generation’s will begin with ‘Dude, like, you know. . . .’”

Conservative—that was my father. Judgmental, too. But I always agreed with him. Because he was my father. And because everything he said made sense. Languages were fragile. They were kept alive by words, and if words subverted their own meanings, what would you have? Smudges of sound, blots of ink, random bits of memory. Who would want that?

But my mother, Is, saw things differently. She was the adventurous one in the family. She looked like a simple household word—pretty, respectable, dedicated—but she craved excitement.

“People want new ways to say things,” she would say whenever Dad complained about the Language.

“People want new ways to say nothing,” he would counter. “‘Ineluctable modality of the visible.’ ‘A euphoric dream of scientificity.’ What the hell is that stuff? Infinite pomposity of the authors, if you ask me.”

Mom would laugh at him, tell him he was becoming a stuffy old grammarian. “What’s wrong with a little fun now and then? Remember ‘Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?’ That was such a thrill! And ‘It depends on what your definition of is is.’”

“You would know about thrills, wouldn’t you, Is? You and that linguapath . . .”

He meant old man Fucked, the snake in our Garden of Etymology, the subtext hissing beneath all of my parents’ arguments. Dad hated Fucked—more than misspellings, more than dangling participles or split infinitives, more than all the jargon in the world. In fact, he hated the entire Fuck family.

“Lexicomaniacs!” he called them, after Fuckalicious was coined. “Fuckability, Fuckingness, Fuckaholic; fuck the fucking fuckheaded fucks! Why have any other words at all?”

But his deepest bitterness was reserved for old man Fucked himself. Because Fucked had a thing for Mom. He chose her for his verb whenever he got the chance. And when he wasn’t trying to conjugate something new with her, he was bragging about how much longer and bigger and more modern he was than Dad.

Dad tried to ignore him. Fucked was an obscenity, after all, and in the old days his placements with Mom had been few and far between. But the Language had evolved, as it always does, and Fucked was now receiving a lot more placements with Mom—quality placements.

Dad couldn’t stand it.

“Truth and beauty, knowledge, understanding—that’s what Language used to be about,” he said. “Now it’s a playground for slang-heads.”

I shared his disgust. Every time I saw old man Fucked sidle up to my mother, my ink would practically boil off the page. I wanted to erase him—not just from a few books and stories but from the Language itself. And to make matters worse, the younger Fucks— puffed up by their newfound popularity—began to tease me. They would stick out their serifs as I passed by, make humping motions with their k’s whenever Fucked got a new placement with my mother.

It was a bad time. But the worst was yet to come.

~

Computers. The Age of Information. One minute we’re getting our heads banged on by typewriter keys, the next we’re rocketing through silicon, the world a blur of bits and bytes, and everything so frighteningly mutable—books, magazines, letters and research papers, even the Dictionary itself.

For most words, it was a change for the better: more jobs, fewer typos, faster production. But for Dad, it was a nightmare:

boolean my_variable = TRUE;
if( my_variable == TRUE ) {
            startSomething(TRUE);
}

Programming—a fate worse than Scrabble. Every day Dad had to appear in hundreds of millions of lines of code. He was the star of nearly every conditional statement, the brains behind every boolean assignment. And every night he came home more exhausted and depressed than the night before.

“‘TRUE, NOT TRUE;TRUE, NOT TRUE,’” Dad said to Mom one evening, not even bothering to change out of his work-font or take off his capitals. “What kind of job is that? Oh, it’s all right for a word like Not. He doesn’t care what he does, as long as he gets to negate someone. But me? I had depth. I had meaning. ‘To thine own self be true.’ ‘Oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.’ ‘Live pure, speak true.’ I made those lines ring. I made them immortal.”

“You’re right, dear,” Mom said, darning a hole in her s. She didn’t say it to placate him. She said it because she agreed. Dad had been a cornerstone of literature and law and philosophy. Wherever he appeared, meaning always followed; strength and integrity radiated from him. Everyone wanted to work with him because they knew that whatever sentence he appeared in would have power and import; it would be remembered.

“Now look at me,” Dad said. “Galley slave to logic. Meanwhile, the world treats those Fucks like they invented the sentence.”

It hurt me to hear Dad like this. I was used to him criticizing the Language, but the overtones of bitterness and disappointment—those were new. And what hurt most of all was knowing that he had good reason to be bitter. Most of the words still respected him, but not for what he was doing, only for what he had done—as though he had turned archaic overnight.

The sudden transformation touched some hidden fear inside me. I began to have nightmares. I dreamed that True had been buried in a great unseen linguistic graveyard—right next to my etymological father. They were both obsolete now, and how could that happen? How could a word like True be thrown into the same pit as my boorish, barbarian father? Just the thought turned my letters into wobbling childscript, and every morning I woke up in an italicized fever.

~

And then, one day not long ago, a new document opened up. It was a work of fiction, maybe even a novel, we thought. To everyone’s surprise, Dad managed to get a walk-on in some dialogue. He was so happy. He went off every morning to the code mines looking as sharp and smooth as I had ever seen him.

But his happiness lasted less than a week. In a climactic section full of mobster dialogue, old man Fucked got sixteen placements with Mom. Dad went through the leading.

“Conjugating trash!” he said to Mom that night. “He bumps up against your kerning every chance he gets!”

“He’s not that bad, True,” Mom said. “Besides, he’ll probably get cut.”

She was wrong. Fucked didn’t get cut. In fact, he got two more placements with her. And to make matters worse, the document leveled off at six thousand words—not a novel at all; just a short story. This meant no more placements for Dad.

“‘Economy of words,’” Dad said to me a few nights later. “It’s the Editor’s manifesto, you know.” He was nervous and angry, convinced that as soon as the document opened the next morning, he would be red-lined.

“As if there’s a shortage of us, as if we’re expensive to use,” he went on. “You know, Be, I was in this story once. A story like cake—layers and layers of words smoothed into thick, shining paragraphs. Passion so high I thought I would melt . . .”

I had heard this story before. It had fascinated me when I was young, but now it just sounded sad—the magenta-colored memories of a fading word. I wanted him to stop, wanted him to go back to being the indelible father I remembered.

But he wouldn’t stop: “Then the Publisher said, ‘Make space for the vodka ad,’ and that was that—cake to bran muffin in five seconds flat.”

Sure enough, the next morning, the Editor started slicing away at us—not just a word here or there, but whole paragraphs. Dad became fidgety. He snapped at the other words around him. When the Editor scrolled to his page, he stretched his t into an f and sucked in his e, hoping to look more like Fuck. But he just ended up looking like “Frue,” and everyone—me, Mom, the entire document—felt embarrassed.

Then, of course, the inevitable happened: the Cursor headed toward Dad. He was going to get cut and everyone knew it. I fixed my gaze on Destitute’s D, trying not to watch. But then Destitute gasped and I had to look. I saw a blank space where my father had been, and the Cursor chasing after a strange blur of moving letters. My father—the venerable True, paragon of virtue and linguistic integrity—was on the run!

He had already made it to the end of the paragraph, and now he was sliding as fast as he could from line to line, jumping over periods and question marks, knocking down quotation marks. I had never seen him do anything so frightening and humiliating. I wanted to shout to him, Stop, Dad! Just stop! But he was already too far away. Then he tried to hide in a block quotation. My pixels blurred. I wanted to lie down and let my letters scatter in every direction. Because my father was a broken word now. He had lost everything that mattered—his nuance, his strength, his dignity and reliability. All he had left was his most literal meaning, and what good was that? What could he do now except be what he hated most: the colorless, passionless eunuch of logic?

The Cursor caught up with him. It backspaced him off the page, and the entire document sighed with relief—every word except old man Fucked. He was laughing so hard his letters had started to smear. The rest of the Fuck family soon joined in, jostling everyone with their uncontrolled serif-slapping and foot-stomping.

That’s when I came to my senses. If words like this can exist, I thought, then there can’t be anything sacred about Language. The Dictionary wasn’t a temple of Sign and Signifier. It was just—just what? A slave ship. A means to chain and transport us and set us to work in the cotton fields of human thought.

~

So here’s my crime. I know you won’t approve of it. No one does, not even my family. But it was the right thing to do.

The Language was sick. It needed a doctor. I appointed myself, and I prescribed a procedure which, ironically, couldn’t have been done before computers. After all, the Dictionary is a vast web of words. When that web is spun over thousands of pieces of paper, it’s hard to change and harder to break. But when it hangs so delicately in memory, stretched across clouds of electrons, it’s easy to change and even easier to break. TRUE, NOT TRUE—a flip of a bit and a word disappears. It could happen by accident. It could happen on purpose.

I needed help with my plan, but there were only two words with the necessary skills: False and Not. False had worked side-by-side with my father since they were born, and despite their differences, the two had always been friends. If I approached False, he would tell my father everything, and that was the last thing I wanted.

That left Not—a contrary word even in the best of circumstances. When I found him, he was leaning against Should, complaining loudly about how everyone thought he was lazy for contracting so often when he was really just trying to save time and ink.

I asked him to follow me to the margin, promising him it would be worth his while. When we were alone, I explained what I wanted.

His first question, of course, was, “What’s in it for me?

“Revenge,” I said—an answer I knew would appeal to him. Because Not was a very angry and insecure word. He had no concrete meaning of his own. He was just a toggle to turn other words into their opposites. This made him feel inferior, and he was sure everyone looked down on him—which, in fact, they did.

~

The first words to disappear were Like and Hopefully and Totally and Awesome and a few others. They were dumb words, but popular enough that their vanishing had a noticeable effect. American phone bills were cut in half. Teenagers sounded almost intelligent.

Everyone was a little surprised, but it wasn’t unusual for words to die now and then, so no one panicked yet.

The next night, however, Empowerment vanished—along with Intertextuality, Hermeneutical, Deconstructionist, Holistic, Homeopathic, Herbal, Homeboy, Bitch, Smack, and Ass. Some prefixes, too: Neo-, Pseudo-, Post-. This time the effect was much more dramatic. Academia ground to a halt. Rap songs lost their misogynistic male demographic overnight. Alternative medicine was reduced to acupuncture and Rolfing.

Now fear set in. The rumors began to fly: stories of Search-and- Replace operations and Censors, even a Disk Failure. Someone shouted, “Language Nazis!” and the immigrant words—Shmutz and Putz, Voíla, Angst, and hordes of others—tried to drop their accents, hide their extra consonants.

Inquiring—the first word in a poem we were building that day and therefore our leader for the moment—decided to send Messenger to the Dictionary to find out what was happening. When Messenger returned, his report was more terrifying than anything anyone had imagined.

“They’re gone,” he said. “Expunged right out of the Language.” Everyone gasped.

“How is that possible?” Inquiring asked.

“Monitor thinks it’s an internal job,” Messenger said.

Internal—meaning one of us. Everyone slid away from Delete and Backspace. Someone gave Cannibal a shove. Not giggled and a few words glanced at him with suspicion. But before anyone could ask questions, Inquiring banged his q and called for order.

“What do you think, True?” he asked.

No one was surprised that he would ask my father. Dad might have been only a shadow of his former self, but in times of crisis every community falls back on the tried and true. Dad never got a chance to answer, however.

“Oh yeah—tell us, True,” Fucked said. “A little code-toady like you, I’ll bet you see everything that’s going on, huh? Or would, if you didn’t have your head up your tail.”

No one had ever talked to Dad this way before. I waited for him to tell Fucked he was phonemic trash, that no one would ever ask his opinion on anything because he had all the intelligence of a misplaced comma. But Dad just slid away.

~

That night, old man Fucked disappeared, along with the rest of his family. So did New, Improved, Downloadable, Multitasking, Minimalist, Signification, Contextuality, Unilateral, Impactful, and Trending.

I thought Dad would be happy. But the news didn’t seem to mean anything to him. He went off to work looking as blank and dejected as ever.

Mom had a few things to say, though. “You know what this is all about, don’t you, Be?” she said, straightening her i and smoothing the curves of her s.

The question took me by surprise. “What do you mean?” I asked.

Fucked humiliated your father yesterday and now he’s gone. All the other words your father has complained about over the years—they’re disappearing, too. Don’t you think that’s a strange coincidence?”

The toner I’d eaten for breakfast suddenly felt hot and heavy inside me. “You think I’m behind this?” I asked.

She looked surprised. “No, I meant your father, of course. I think—I think he’s not well, Be.”

“How can a word not be well?” I asked, though I knew of plenty of sick words, even a few who had died.

Mom didn’t answer. But she was a smart verb. I knew it was only a matter of time before she realized the truth. And then what?

That evening, I pulled Not aside. He had worked too fast, I told him. We needed to lay low for a while, let things quiet down. But Not didn’t want to stop. He was quivering with energy, contracting and uncontracting at random. In his new 24-point bold Gothic typeface, he looked like a splotch of ink dangling over the page, ready to blot out everyone.

“Nope, nope. Can’t do it,” he said. “I’m not anywhere near done, Be-Be, baby. But you know, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the laser printer. Capiche?”

~

A dozen more words vanished that night—Proactive and Facilitate and a bunch of others I had always hated. I should have been happy, but I wasn’t. Because this time, my parents were missing, too.

I didn’t want to believe it, at first. I searched through the poem I was in, stumbling over the empty spaces and broken iambs. I went into the other documents. I had to fight against the tide of fleeing families, everyone running blindly, stupidly, as if one page or document would be safer than another. But the longer I searched, the more obvious it became that my parents were gone. Not had deleted them, just as he’d deleted all the others.

The fact that I was still there, that Literature and Language and documents in general still existed and the world of computers hadn’t ground to a halt, should have told me something. True couldn’t be expunged from the Language without every computer in the world crashing, and the bits were still flowing as fast and steady as ever. So Dad had to be safe.

But I was too upset to remember this. Instead, I spent the night tossing and turning on my baseline, thinking it was my fault, that I had to find Not and stop him before he deleted the entire Dictionary. But I was afraid—afraid that he wouldn’t listen to me, afraid that even if I could convince him to stop, he wouldn’t be able to bring my parents back. And if he couldn’t do that, what did I care what happened to anyone else? Let the Language die, I thought; and let me die with it.

~

The next morning, I learned what kind of words my parents really are. And I learned what kind of word I am. Beyond Nouns and Verbs and Adjectives and Adverbs, beyond Sign and Signifier, or Action and Object, there is Faith and Doubt, and every word is either a word of Faith or a word of Doubt. It’s important to know which you are, because the destiny of each word rests on this one characteristic. My mother? Faith, of course. My father? Faith. And me? Shouldn’t I be a word of Faith, too? Shouldn’t I have inherited this one thing from my mother or learned it from my stepfather? But I hadn’t. And nothing made this clearer to me than the sudden reappearance of all the missing words.

They stumbled in without warning, a cloud of characters spreading in from the margins. Fucked was there, and Intertextuality and Impactful, Rad, Logistical, Iterative, Hack, Phreak, Upgraded, and all the others I had told Not to cut from the Dictionary.

Everyone rushed forward to greet their loved ones. I scanned the ranks for my parents, afraid they wouldn’t be among the survivors, that Not had found a way to permanently delete them. But they appeared, too, finally, bringing up the rear of the procession, their typefaces thin and ragged around the edges. And between them—his ascenders straining as he struggled and swore and shouted that it wasn’t his idea, that he had only been following orders—marched their prisoner: Not.

Is and True had saved the Language! someone cried. The crowd cheered as my parents dragged Not forward and deposited him at the foot of Inquiring. Not, straightening up, spotted me in one of the lower rows and gave me a gleeful sneer. I knew then that he would confess everything. But I didn’t care.

“We caught him in the Dictionary’s software,” Dad explained to Inquiring. “He was going through the code at night, changing my placements from ‘TRUE’ to ‘NOT TRUE’ so all the words he hated would disappear.”

 

“Why?” Inquiring asked Not.

Not laughed. “You mean, ‘Why, Not?’”

And as he began explaining to his captors that he was only a flunky, that I was the true mastermind behind the crime, I edged my way out of the lines. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I had done. I had done it for the right reasons—for Dad, for Mom, for the family, for the Language. No one could fault me for that.

But as I watched my father listening to Not’s confession, I saw his letters drain into inkless outlines. He would not look my way. And my mother’s i, full of love and grief and confusion, suddenly felt like a hard rubber stamp pressing back against me. I realized then how different we were. I could love and cherish and revere both of them. I could worship the paper True rested on. But, in the end, I was my father’s son—my etymological father’s. And I knew one more thing about him now: he had been a word of Doubt.

~

So here I am—in exile, as it were. I work side-by-side with the others, see my mother and father and siblings every day, but no one acknowledges my existence. I’m as dead to them as if Not had expunged me from the Dictionary.

Am I sorry? Yes, because I miss my family, because this is not the life I wanted—for them or for me. But no—I’m not really sorry. Because I see now what happens to faithful, obedient words. My parents saved the Language. They were heroes. And yet, Fucked is bumping against my mother’s kerning again; Dad is back in the code mines, slipping and sliding down the slag heap of information. Meanwhile, Like and Impactful and Intertextuality ride fat and happy across the fields of discourse, turning everything they step on into muck.

When I was young, Dad warned me over and over again: A word that breaks its definition can never get it back. At the time, I couldn’t imagine a worse fate. But now it seems like a gift. I mean, what selfrespecting word would want to end up like my father? What word with any sense would let himself be shoved into computer code or manipulated into political speeches and academic papers, advertisements and website banners?

Words are like butlers, Dad had told me. But we’re not even that much, are we? We’re just little tags on the ears of creatures too vague and slippery for you to hold onto. And what if we suddenly say no? What if, one morning, you wake up and find we don’t mean what you want us to mean? Could you remember anything that’s ever happened to you? Could you identify your parents or your children or your dog or your breakfast? Could you even remember yourself? Face it: you’re nothing without us. We are your miracle—the first and only true miracle you have ever had.

 

Chris Abouzeid’s fiction and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including New England Review, The Southern Review, Epoch, Literal Latté, and The Literary Review. His awards include grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation.(4/2004)


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