Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Austin J. Dalton

The day already seemed to be a less than auspicious one when I glanced over at the alarm clock from where I was positioned on the couch. Ten in the morning, I’d missed my academic advising appointment by an hour. The worst part is that I had indeed set my alarm clock a few times over and hadn’t even slept through the noise when it went off; in a half-awake daze, I must have opted for the snooze option and fell straight back asleep. Good luck explaining that one, am I right?

“Goddamn it,” I muttered to myself as I considered my predicament.

Getting up, I stubbed my foot on a plastic stegosaurus that my nephew had for some reason left in the living room from when I had been watching him the other day. The spikes on that little things back had, apparently, been meant to educate children about how damn serious-business a real dinosaur’s spikes would be, and thus it was sharper than the most egregious Lego piece and more pointed that a tack. Just loud enough to possibly be faintly heard on the other side of the duplex, I yelled out something to the effect of, “Fucking shit!”

I skipped the shower and used deodorant and a very conservative amount of cologne to make myself presentable to the noses of others and then proceeded to go about the other things. Oral hygiene, anti-acne solution, combing my hair.

When I got outside, I tried to get the car to turn over but it wouldn’t budge. It had been doing this off and on with the recent drop in temperatures, and unfortunately, I lack the automotive know-how to dispatch with the problem myself. As I realized that I would have to grab the bus to take care of my errands, I sat stewing in the isolation of my car and yelled out something like, “Oh, fuck it all to shits!”

The city bus came by at eleven thirty, and I sat at a window seat. I glanced up and saw a placard nailed in place next to the STOP REQUESTED light, and this is where the entire day really started to come unglued. I attempted to read this stupid thing and could only comprehend the first two words and then the last five. It took a bit of blinking, at first, to actually understand what most of the placard said. The first two words: “do not”. The rest of the sentence: “…in front of the bus”. In between these two segments was a word that I was pretty sure I had never seen in my life, like something straight out of those Eastern alphabets. After a minute of staring, my brain processed the fact that it was a five-letter word starting with what appeared to be a ‘c’. Like some little kid gone cold turkey on phonics, I just could not process the damn word.

‘Cross’? I wondered so much that it started to give me a headache. What the shit does that word mean? Is that the English language? Is that some portmanteau of something else that they just made up for the sake of this transit system?

This silly string of characters stared back at me like Medusa, something about it seeming instantly hostile to my eyes and making me feel worse by the minute. I feared that perhaps my morning had not unfolded like I thought it had and that I was in actuality still lying on the couch in a state of hypnagogic confusion. Yes, the word was not an empirically real word used by humans on planet Earth, that couldn’t be it at all; surely, I was only imagining this thing.

But no, I focused as hard as I could and arrived at the conclusion that I was at least as awake as I am while recalling this and as you are while reading it. Nonetheless, my confusion at this word seemed to surely be the result of some mental lethargy on my part. Coffee would do the trick, I surmised.

The bus dropped me off at the mall and I made a beeline for the first coffee shop in sight. Once I stood in line, however, it became obvious that something was terribly wrong. None of the words on the menu were even vaguely familiar. “French Something”? “Something-cino”? At least the mystery adjective on the bus had the benefit of being uncanny, like I’d known it in some past life but now hadn’t the foggiest what it meant. This crap on the cafe’s menu, though, was just like baby talk that some manager had inexplicably scribbled onto their menu. Why, as a joke? I have no idea.

Hopeful that this was all going to amount to one ugly coincidence, I walked about thirty to forty feet down the interior area of the mall until I came across another cafe. The same thing. The letters up on the menu board and on all of the price tags for items all looked like extraterrestrial hieroglyphics. It was either the result of a strange planetary takeover by some interdimensional race of beings, or I was actually unlearning how to read.

That’s when it dawned on me that I needed to call someone.

They must have kept me at the doctor’s all night. He ran this basic test and that basic test, had me fill out this mountain of paperwork and then that one — much of it, on account of my horrifying new ailment, requiring the help of a medical assistant to guide me through which words meant what.

It took until after sundown before my physician would invite me back into his office to talk with me about what he could surmise so far. In the meantime, I sat in the lobby and tried to understand these magazines they left out there; I might have recognized their content just the other day, but the more I looked at these words, the less they registered in my brain. “Better” I recognized, I knew that word. “Homes”, I knew that word also. I even recognized the ampersand, although it took me about thirty seconds to figure it out. “Gardens”, though? What the hell kind of word was that, I wondered? Dutch?

Finally, my physician asked to talk to me in his office. About time, I thought, because everything out there in the lobby that had any text on it was starting to look about as good as Greek to me. The doctor carried himself more seriously than I’d ever seen the man, usually a man of limitless enthusiasm and jollity even when diagnosing me with something like the pox in years past. Seeing Dr. Barnum carry himself this way only made me more afraid.

“Doctor, what the hell is happening to me?”

“Son, it’s time to be as frank as you can with me. Do you do any illicit drugs, or perhaps drink liquor on a regular basis?”

“Hell shitting no, doctor.”

“Now, do you answer no because you don’t do either, or because you don’t do either individually? Are you, perhaps, one of those kids who drops small tablets of illicit controlled substances into jugs of liquor and then uses a whisk to mix them into an especially potent glass of alcoholodrugs?”

“Doctor, you know that I don’t do any of that crap.”

“Well. . .technically, I don’t know that, per se. That’s kind of a stretch. For me to make that statement with any confidence would take some kind of omniscience on my part.”

“Fair enough. But what the hell is it, doctor? Is it a sudden onset of some kind of dementia? Could it be one of those dyslexia-ish disorders where I’m forced to live the rest of my life permanently forgetting certain words and unable to process new ones? Holy shit, what a terrifying prospect!”

Dr. Barnum shook his head. “No, no. It’s really not that. Judging by the results of your test, there’s only one conclusion I can draw, my boy,” doctor say with big sigh. “You must have a history of abusing the most dangerous narcotic of them all: profane words.”

“Huh?” I ask doctor.

Dr. Barnum looked carefully over both shoulders as if some eavesdropping ghost might appear, and then he went over and locked the door to his office and drew the shades. “This hidden field of medical analysis is one that very few know about and even fewer care to practice. Even the very best of linguists, especially neurolinguists — Chomsky, Geschwind, the like — knew about this phenomenon on some very rudimentary level or another, but the debasing of western civilization has caused the information to become increasingly difficult to find. In his lost 1903 text On the Causes and Prognosis of Vocabulatrophy, psychiatrist and pathologist Carl Wernicke first suggested that the words which we speak have a deeper cosmic dimension to them; when this was discovered by certain powerful Machiavellian jerks, they had him bumped off and made it look like a bicycle accident. The text? It is now impossible to get a copy of, unless of course you know the right people. Most people deny that it even exists, that’s how deep the mass brainwashing scheme goes.”

“I’m afraid I really don’t understand!”

“Dear boy, this probably all starts with a rash assumption that you and the rest of western civilization have about the nature of all words, from all human tongues that we have accounted for. The truth of the situation is that words are not just strings of spoken or written syllables with fluid meanings, but very concrete things with powers that even the best modern science is too limited to fully comprehend. To really understand profanity-based vocabulatrophy, researchers have had to venture outside the mainstream scientific community to the realm of non-western-and-therefore-automatically-valid spiritual practices and shamanism.”

Then Mr. Doctor show me a diagram with a big picture of a brain on it. He lay it out on table. It have lines and much text. There is brain in picture.

“Words have certain thetan counts attached to them, you see,” doctor man say. “And the meridians that exist in the metaphysical dimension of these words must exist somewhat at odds with the thetan count. This having been said, it’s no different than matter or antimatter as we understand the terms. However, certain catalysts can be invoked to throw the balance off completely, which in the equilibrium of the cosmos means that the balance must be reinstated through whatever means possible. If the presence of dirty words on the space-time continuum gets too be great and develops a singularity, this causes the subject’s other non-dirty vocabulary to become depleted. So every time a person uses a profane word, what they don’t realize is that they are truncating their own vocabulary, one foul utterance at a time. For the most part, however, vocabulatrophy doesn’t occur in most victims because of the delayed effects of the linguistic entropy. You must be a rare case, young man. Naturally, the effects of this illness depend on whether or not Venus is in reverse phantasmagorical retrograde. If this is the case, then context is not a contingent factor; therefore it doesn’t matter if someone uses the, y’know, H-E-double-hockey-sticks-word if they’re reading directly from the Bible. In that scenario, it’s the same as if they had uttered the word in anger while sitting in traffic. In stark contrast, however, the Venus retrograde rule is superseded if the qi level is past a certain four-digit integer. This number is disputed, but there is a general consensus on its range, specifically its place in the thousands. If this is so, then the usage of the dirty word is still context-dependent and the subject may not lose any words out of their vocabulary.”

Doctor slow down, breathe good.

“In short, son, everything you’ve ever heard about how foul language is an indicator of low vocabulary is very true. Profane words, as our culture has decided in its infinite wisdom and certainly-never-arbitrary judgment, are words with such great magic power that they can totally eradicate the user’s knowledge of other words. That’s totally how it works.”

Suddenly me no do words good. Me no know what doctor say. Me shrug.

Doctor keep talk, “Our best researchers have tried to figure out what it is about these words; the dirty words, the four-letter wonders. It is a curiosity. How can these words carry so much power that they drain the rest of a subject’s vocabulary? And why is it that it takes so long to catch up? Why, young fellow, you’ve probably been saying f-word this and k-word that your entire life and it’s just now starting to wither away at your grasp on your mother language. In time, of course, the last bit of coherent English will drip right out of your consciousness like diseased motor oil.” He sit down at his doctor desk, look at me all stern-like. “Do you have any questions, my boy?”

Me think what say. “Frankly, doctor,” me said. “if I may be so bold as to voice my candor: this all appears to be a load of highly dubious shit that some charlatan just made up.”


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