Word Magic is a short story prequel to a larger piece of fiction I’m working on about language and its power to shape the world. I love Mariah’s work — she brings magic to my stories and to those of other writers. Please visit her site and subscribe to her work. In the meantime, enjoy this story and follow along with the text below.
“But I hate that name!” The boy tried to squirrel away from his teacher.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion before assigning it to you, Acolyte Will. Names are bestowed based on a quality of need, not emotional preference.”
“But you said the best words fire up emotion–”
“Your name will do so… in time. Now, you have to get back to work. How many words have you discovered today, Acolyte Will?”
The boy stopped squirming and settled down. He looked excited to share his lexical discoveries; it must have been a productive morning. Seeing the boy’s enthusiasm, the teacher settled down next to him. The boy had real word magic talent. It was true that he was lazy and unpredictable with it yet, but he was only a few years old still. In time, the cabal had great hopes for this stubborn, brilliant acolyte.
Word magic was ancient. Some believed it was older than the modern man. To name something was a beginning of a true understanding. When words failed or were simply lacking, ideas and feelings got lost, leading to a breakdown of civility. For language was the foundation of civilization; and words were the intricately crafted tools of language. The teacher sighed at the mindless fidgeting of his pupil. He hasn’t learned the true power of his gift yet.
“Why don’t you tell me a few of your discoveries?” he asked. For like numbers, real words were discovered, not invented.
The boy made a sour face but slipped his legs underneath his body and settled down, sitting on his knees, focusing his attention at last. The teacher raised his eyebrows prompting Will to go on.
“Scuffle,” the teacher repeated. “It has a nice mouthfeel. There’s a bit too much spittle flying out on–”
“That’s the point!” The boy was now excited, happy to discuss his new-found word. “It sounds painful but not too much.”
“A fight is too strong a word sometimes. I wanted something smaller. Just a short…a scrap…a short struggle.”
“Fight. Scrap. Struggle,” the teacher repeated.
“Scuffle! It’s perfect.” Will was throwing his arms around in a mock fight. “Less than a fight, but more than…than…” He couldn’t come up with a good alternative.
“It’s a good word, Will,” the teacher approved. “It feels good. It tastes right. It gives a nice shade to the meaning of interaction.”
“Can I set it loose?” The boy was so eager that he practically jumped on his knees.
“Yes,” the teacher said thoughtfully. “Give it a try. Start with others acolytes in your group and see if it gets picked up. If it is still in use a few months from now, we can take it out for a wider circulation.” The boy practically somersaulted with excitement. “Mind you,” the teacher cautioned. “I don’t want to hear of you starting any scuffles just to anchor your word into our students’ vocabularies. The absorption of a new word into a general lexicon, or even a limited one, has to be treated with much care.”
“Is that all?”
“Well. I have another one.” The boy seemed as shy about this other word as he was excited for his first one. “Eyeball!” Will practically shouted the word and hid his own eyes under the palms of his hands, spreading his fingers just enough to spy his teacher’s reaction.
“Hmm,” the teacher tried not to laugh. This morning, Will and few other acolytes were sent to assist the butcher in preparing a cow carcass for sale. Learning word magic required immersion in lots of different experiences. The butcher was a good man and did his best to entertain the students from their school. He always tried to do an organ dissection or two if he had time. The teacher guessed Will observed the cow eye dissection demonstration. “Eyes do have the shape of a ball,” he said, “but only when pulled out of the body.”
The boy made circles with his thumbs and forefingers and put them to his eyes like glasses, wiggling the rest of the fingers like eyelashes. The teacher saw the butcher do the same gesture, leaving bloody prints around his eyes. The young acolytes perennially found that funny. But Will was the only one who left the demonstration with a new word.
Will obviously saw the humor in his teacher’s eyes and laughed as the tension melted. “It’s a silly word,” he said. “But everyone liked it.”
“Everyone? Words have power. It’s important to treat new ones with special care until their full potentials manifested themselves.”
Will shrunk back from such an obvious mistake. “I meant it as a joke, Teacher. It just fell off my tongue when the cow’s eye rolled off the table and hit the ground. And then everyone laughed. Even Master Butcher. Everyone liked the word…” The boy’s speech petered out, running out of excuses. Only the very young or ones with least potential for word magic made these kinds of mistakes, and he knew it.
“Acolyte Will,” the teacher said. He was all serious now, the time for benevolent humor gone. “Remember ‘mulligrubs’? It was one of our school’s words. But some careless acolyte inverted its meaning by applying it to the local vicar. And now it describes a person who is faking or exaggerating his bad mood.”
“Did it mean something else before?” Will asked in horror. The school rarely lost control of its own words.
“Think, Acolyte Will,” the teacher said. “When the bad mood grabs you and doesn’t let go for multiple days? When you are mulling on the death of a loved one? Or when the depth of your anguish is so–”
“Nope, that no longer works,” Will interrupted, oblivious to the breach of etiquette. “Mulligrubs is too funny a word. It sounds like a fakery.”
“But it didn’t start out that way,” the teacher pointed out. “Word meanings change all the time, Will. But it is up to us to guide and shape their definitions. When we let the words slip away from our grasp, we lose power over them and over the people. Remember who we are. Who you will become–”
“We are the inventor of civilizations,” Will said by rote, interrupting again. “We are the masters of word magic. We control what people see and think.”
“And do,” the teacher added. “That’s the most important word magic, Acolyte William Shakespeare. We shape people’s actions. We know the true power of words. Don’t you ever forget that.”