The English language has five thousand words. A long time ago, before I and the Third Generation were born, there were half a million words in the English language.
Half a million. Imagine the nuance—to profess love not as a transactional relationship, but shaded with desire and longing. Or to grieve, not only out of obligation but to sink beneath the weight of loss. We could feel so much more, if only we had the words to do so. But nuance is not a priority of the Post-Republic. Nuance is not a word that exists anymore. It is my job to remember it. I am a word hoarder, tasked with preserving the words the world has forgotten.
Evening sunlight pours into the scriptorium, casting long shadows over my manuscript. I’ve been working on this volume for months now and the leather spine has finally broken in so the pages lay flat as I write. Around me, in tailored blue uniforms, other word hoarders slide pens across paper, frantic to complete a few more entries before days’ end. I ink, “Mizzle: to rain in fine, mist-like droplets.” The final whistle blows. I take my place in the word count line, though my head is filled with the sensation of cold dew against my skin.
“Mizzle,” I whisper. It is not the most interesting word I have ever recorded; it doesn’t have the twilit hue of “gloaming” or the bouncing melody of “mellifluous.” But I believe it deserves a moment of reverence all the same. I am not alone in this. My fellow first-year word hoarders whisper their entries under their breath, testing the shape of the sound on their tongue.
Our technical title is Transcribers of Republic Language, direct reports to the Department of Culture and Language. The First Generation of word hoarders invented the name for internal use. It conjures an image of people scooping up piles of words in their hands, holding them up to watch them glint in the light. Hoard does not exist anymore—at least, not on record.
At my supervisor’s desk, she counts up my entries for the day and transfers my pay into my account.
Her usually stern voice is hushed when she says, “Clio, please report to the Section of Records and Redactions before you go. They’ve requested our support for a project.” Her eyes are warm behind her half-moon glasses. “I thought you would be a great fit.”
“Me?” My surprise echoes through the nearly silent scriptorium. I feel the weight of dozens of eyes on me. “Thank you,” I whisper. I leave quickly, my manuscript still clutched to my chest.
Leaving the scriptorium for the main building of the Department of Culture and Language is always my least favorite part of the day. The scriptorium is a world of color and texture, unlike anything I had ever experienced before I became a word hoarder. Heavy wooden tables are dotted sporadically with small lamps and colored glass shades, casting jewel-toned light across the pages. Soft chairs with threadbare upholstery are neatly arranged alongside the tables, though each one is a different size and shape. The air is always thick with the metallic scent of ink, the pulpy tang of paper, the earthen musk of leather.
But I descend the stairs from the scriptorium down into the beige, neutral world of the Department of Culture and Language—C&L as everyone else calls it. The words no longer exist to describe it properly. Bleak has been forbidden since the First Generation of the Post-Republic. Sterile is still used today, but purely for medical reasons—to use it in another context would be inconceivable. Boring is probably the best word available, though it hardly captures the pervasive lack of sensation. The only smell is a vaguely chemical one from some cleaning product or other. Through the windows, the view of the Capital is unremarkable—another identical Department building across the street blocking the late-afternoon light.
There’s a low drone as workers file out for the day, like bees in a hive. Even the uniforms of the other C&L workers—anyone who is not in the Section of Republic Language—are a plain, dreary gray. As I make my way down the stairs and through the endless halls to the Section of Records and Redaction, I grow self-conscious in my indigo uniform, the color of the sky just before moonrise. All of those gray suits watch me as I move deeper into the building, while they head for the main exit. I can feel their disdain—though they would refer to their expressions as lack of interest based on their available vocabulary. Our Section has long been considered a waste of resources.
When I arrive at the Section of Records and Redaction, it is deserted. Rows of empty cubicles stretch out before me. I sigh. What was my supervisor thinking, sending me here after the final whistle had blown? Who would stay on to work on project with a waste-of-resource word hoarder?
“Hello?” I say feebly. “I’m a Transcriber. Someone requested support on a project?”
A young woman jumps up from the last cubicle, and I let out an involuntary yelp. “Sorry, sorry.” She’s clumsily extricating herself from her cubicle. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I’m still jittery when I say, “No, no it’s fine.”
“Clio, right? I’m Petra, thanks so much for your help.” She offers her hand to shake. There is an energy to her that can only be possessed by a first-year Redactor.
“Sorry—I haven’t been briefed yet. How exactly will I be helping you?” I say.
“Oh, yes, right.” She smooths her gray uniform. “I have proposed to remove three words from the working vocabulary each month, and I’d like your help comparing those words to words that have already been removed. Since I don’t know what words no longer exist, I can’t build a case on my own.”
I almost laugh. But then I see Petra’s eager smile and the spark in her brown eyes. She is serious. My jaw works as I struggle for the right thing to say. Annoyance and rage churn in the pit of my stomach.
“Why?” I blurt.
Petra doesn’t seem taken aback by my bluntness. Instead she presses her hand to her chest. “I don’t think our Section is doing enough to control and monitor language—that’s why I became a Redactor. New words are entering usage every day and if left unchecked they could become dangerous.”
“But won’t removing words from usage only confuse people?” I ask.
“That’s what my supervisor said, but that’s just an excuse. I offered to pilot this program, to remove words from usage at regular intervals. If done properly, I think it will be highly effective.”
I shift my weight, holding my manuscript tighter to my chest. “I don’t know if I’m the best person to help you.”
“Your supervisor already committed your support.” Petra’s face falls. “If Republic Language isn’t willing to help useful Department Sections, then why do you exist in the first place?”
My heart catches in my throat. I find myself staring at Petra’s pointed pumps. “My apologies. Of course, my Section is willing to offer assistance. I mean, I don’t know if I, personally—.”
“It will take hardly any of your time. Compare these words to removed words. Find similarities.” She pulls a crumpled list from her pocket and holds it out between us.
In scrawled handwriting I read:
“I don’t understand.” I read the list again and again and again. I still can’t believe it.
“I’ve noticed these words frequently appear in sentences that must be redacted, and so I believe that removing these words from usage entirely will decrease the need for redaction.” Petra smiles, clearly pleased with himself.
“Possibility?” I ask. “That’s pretty common.”
“Yes, I think it would be a good test of how willing people are to accept the change. There are suitable synonyms: ‘chance’ or ‘likelihood’.”
“I suppose.” I shuffle again. Her eagerness is exhausting; her ignorance infuriating. “That one will be difficult to build a case for.”
“I’m looking forward to working with you.” Petra nods, and I realize the decision has been made for me.
The following evening, as I present my new entries to my supervisor, she asks, “How’d it go with Petra?”
“I appreciate you recommending me for this position,” I whisper. “But—”
“I’m sure you’ll make her see sense.”
Relief flows through my chest, where tightness had lodged since the previous day. I had worried that my supervisor was somehow in support of Petra’s project. Eliminating new words each month—the idea was anathema to me, to the word hoarders, and everything we stood for. I had not been recommended to help her, I had been recommended to dissuade her. That was a worthy pursuit.
I stride through the Department of Culture and Languages, practically leaping down the stairs, ignoring the looks from the other workers which range from condescending to bleary-eyed. I cannot imagine what it must be like to work in Sections whose sole purpose is to whittle language down until we have only scraps left. I had studied so hard to become a word hoarder and passed countless entrance exams—I had never wanted to be anything else.
Today, Petra is waiting for me, not hiding in her corner cubicle. I notice two chairs pulled up beside her desk illuminated with the pale blue glow of her monitor.
“Would you mind if we worked outside?” I ask.
Petra looks at me as though I’ve suggested we walk to the moon. “How?” Her eyes dart toward her computer.
I lift my half-completed manuscript. I have two completed texts in my bag, and I’m listing to one side because of their weight. “I am currently carrying more words than currently exist in the English language.”
Petra’s mouth actually drops open for a moment before she snaps it shut. “Oh, alright then.” She follows me quietly—her self-assured chatter replaced by the rhythmic fall of her heels against the linoleum.
It is the third month of spring—names of months have been eliminated to distance the rational, enlightened, Post-Republic from any link to Roman gods and emperors. The cherry blossom trees in the square catty-corner to the Department of Culture and Language have begun to drop their blooms. The ground is covered with snow-like petals. I breathe deep the sweet, cool air.
We settle on to a cold metal bench beneath a tree with a few wilted cherry blossoms. Petra sits on the edge of the bench, her hands braced on either side of her as though she were getting ready to run.
Her eyes dart around the square, watching a young mother and child, an elderly couple, a middle-aged man and his small dog. Then she whispers, “Where did you get a book like that?”
I smile a little at her discomfort—I can’t help it. Yesterday, she was so confident, she believed she had the authority to remove words from our language. Today my manuscript has made her skittish.
I explain my job as a word hoarder—though I refer to it by the official title, Transcriber of Republic Language. I open up my manuscript so that she can see some of the entries, but she won’t dare to look at it.
“All of that should be redacted,” she mutters.
“It has been—these words have been completely eliminated from use,” I protest.
“That’s not what I mean,” she snaps. “A book like that is dangerous. Imagine if someone found it.”
“That’s why we hand-write transcriptions. When this dictionary is complete, it will only hold a fraction of all of the eliminated words. But if we stored everything digitally, and that data was compromised…” I watch her squirm.
Ages pass in tense silence before she whispers, “What’s a dictionary?” She wrings her hands and I notice her perfectly manicured nails. My fingertips are stained with ink, and I think perhaps they are not so different from Petra’s pale pink fingernails.
“It was a reference book that contained the definition of all of the words in a language—like the Approved Words and Usages list.” My voice has transformed into the slow and sweet tone I use with my niece and nephew. Heat creeps up my neck and I hope Petra doesn’t notice like I’m speaking to her like a child.
“May I see it?” Petra asks. She hasn’t met my eyes since we left the offices. But I slide closer on the bench and shift the manuscript so that it lays open across our legs.
The texture of paper beneath my fingers and the weight of the leather volume have become as familiar to me as my own skin and limbs. But Petra has never experienced anything like it. She runs her hand across the page and along the edge of the book.
“I’ve only transcribed partway through M, but I brought a couple completed volumes from older transcribers for a broader selection.”
“What will you do when you’ve finished this one?” Petra breathes. Her fingers trace the crease of the spine.
“I’ll receive another assignment and transcribe those words into a new volume, or maybe I’ll work on a copy of a completed dictionary. But it will be months before I finish it—I’ve been working on this one since our induction ceremony last summer.”
Petra flips the pages absently. “Do you have a favorite?”
“Desiderium,” I say without needing to think, “an ardent longing, as for something lost.” I shake my head ardent and longing have both been eliminated from language as well. “It means to miss something very strongly.”
Petra finally looks at me and her eyes are wide. Yesterday I thought they were brown, but this close, I can see they are so dark they are almost black. They gleam like obsidian. “Why do you love something so sad?”
I smile. That wasn’t what I expected her to say. “Because that’s how I feel, sometimes. And that word gives voice to that feeling—lets me name and understand it.”
Petra tugs at the hem of her uniform jacket. “But why feel it at all?” She straightens suddenly, her voice sure and commanding. “If we remove words like this, like your desi-whatever, then people won’t have to feel that way. So let’s get started.”
I want to shake her. I want to grab her by the lapel of her bland gray uniform. I want to shout without caring who hears, “We’ll still feel. We’ll always feel. We just won’t understand.”
But I don’t. My supervisor wants me to make Petra see sense, and I know that I won’t be able to crack through her façade by arguing with her. I had seen tiny fissures today—her shining obsidian eyes—but she is stone again. So I humor her.
We start to build a case for infinite and forever. Any words with a religious connotation—eternal, evermore, and immortality have been banned for years. Words without end—bottomless, boundless, immeasurable, incalculable—have also been removed from use. In the data-driven Post-Republic, the ability to measure and quantify is paramount. Unknowability is not a concept people could comprehend.
“In what context do you usually see these words?” I ask. I’ve written down a list of previously banned words for Petra’s argument, as well as suitable substitutes. I suggest always and permanent as more sterile, passionless replacements.
“Love correspondence mostly.” Petra’s manicured finger runs down the list.
A chill shudders down my spine. “You redact love letters?”
Petra blinks at me. “We review every piece of correspondence sent to and from every citizen of the Post-Republic. Of course we redact love letters.”
“But—but what’s the harm in them? Why can’t someone say, ‘I’ll love you forever?’”
“Because it’s not true. They won’t exist forever.”
“It doesn’t matter! They’ll love them as long as they’re alive—a lifetime could be forever!”
“Then say that! Say I’ll love you for a lifetime!” Petra’s voice rises in pitch to a near-squeak.
“It’s not the same. That puts an end to it—even if it’s a long time from now. People want to feel like even in death someone will love them.”
“Exactly! Can you imagine how dangerous it would be if people thought themselves stronger than death?”
Her words carry across the square. The child playing on the statue starts to cry. The elderly couple abandons their bench. The little dog barks incessantly.
I swallow hard, so loud that I’m sure Petra can hear it. The sickly sweet scent of the rotting cherry blossoms is so thick I feel like I’m choking. “I understand.”
Petra’s cheeks and the tips of her ears flush red, then her face grows hard again. Her eyes pierce mine with a bitter cold. “Maybe you were right. Maybe you are not personally suited for this project,” Petra says. “Maybe I need someone with less passion.”
My heart slams against my ribs and I wipe my sweating palms on my pants. If Petra takes me off the project, how can I stop her? “I’m sorry—it’s not my place to question your decision. I’m only here for support.”
Petra looks me up and down and it feels like her gaze will turn me to stone.
“Good.” Petra smooths her uniform. “I think that’s enough for the day. We made good progress. Tomorrow, same time? We can work outside again if you’d like,” she offers as a consolation.
I match her weak smile. “Yes. Tomorrow, same time and place,” I say.
Petra turns to leave, and I form a wildly reckless idea. “Petra, what’s your favorite word?” I ask.
Petra rolls her eyes. For a moment I don’t think she’s going to answer, but then she says, “Sky.”
That night, I pore over the manuscript at my older brother and sister-in-law’s wobbly kitchen table. I’ve been living with them for the last three years, since our parents’ accident. I’m sure it’s not how Seth and Hennie pictured married life—becoming my guardians after only a few months as newlyweds.
Their twins, Elia and Sal, climb all over me, jostling for a place in my lap to see what I’m doing. I breathe in the sweet scent of their soft curls.
“Aunt Clio is working,” Seth tells them. He’s up to his elbows in a sink full of dishes.
Hennie, petite though she is, expertly scoops a child up under each arm. Elia flails and cries; Sal goes boneless. “Come on, let’s get you ready for bed,” Hennie murmurs. The two-year-olds start to calm down with the hush of her voice.
Soon the only sound in the kitchen is the steady stream of water and Seth’s rhythmic scrubbing.
“Seth, would you say that you’ll love them forever?”
A dish clatters in the sink. My brother whips around to look at me with anger in his hazel eyes. “As opposed to love them until tomorrow? Until a fixed date?”
I run a hand down my face. “No—I mean—do you feel a difference, emotionally, between saying you love them and you’ll love them forever?”
Seth dries his hands with his apron, still dotted with grease from dinner, and peers over my shoulder. “Is this something for work?” he asks.
“Just answer the question,” I groan.
“Of course there’s a difference—‘I love you’ is present tense. It’s happening now but it could change. ‘I’ll love you forever’ is a promise—future tense.”
I smile. My brother is a Reporter for the Department of Public Information—while he doesn’t have my knowledge of extinct words, his passion for the precision of language rivals mine.
“So ‘I love you as long as I live,’ doesn’t have the same effect either?” I ask.
“I don’t want to imply to my kids that I’m going to die!” Seth protests. Then his brow furrows. “Is ‘forever’ in trouble?”
I shrug. “It’s a powerful word.”
“Every word is powerful.” He musses my dark hair. “I’ll love you forever too, by the way.”
“So maudlin,” I tease.
“I don’t know what that means, so I will pretend it’s a compliment.” He swats at me with his dishtowel.
I sit in that tiny kitchen, with the sound of my brother washing the dishes, the scent of pork and gravy still heavy in the air. A cool spring breeze blows in through the open window. My niece and nephew’s feet patter in the other room. I close my manuscript, and rest my cheek on the worn leather cover.
I feel safe here, and I feel loved. Not just loved for now—loved forever.
Hennie and Seth go to bed when the electricity goes off for the night, but I light an emergency candle and stay up for hours. I scour my manuscript, scratch out a list. I made a mistake today, telling Petra that my favorite word was desiderium. It’s a word that I need, that I feel in my bones, that speaks to our loss. But it’s a sad word—as Petra said—and she pushed it away. Sometimes it’s easier to ignore sadness than to name it.
I need words that she wants to let in.
The next day, I meet Petra in the square. “Do you have more comfortable shoes?” I ask before she sits down on our bench.
“These are perfectly comfortable,” she says. I eye her pointed pumps and shrug. I’ve already changed into my runners.
“I’ve been thinking about ‘possibility’—and there’s a place that I’d like you to see.”
Petra doesn’t say much as we wait in the honeycombed metro station. Down here, footsteps echo. Garbled announcements crackle over the speakers. The rumble of the trains vibrates beneath our feet. It’s more chaos than order as people flood onto crowded train cars to get home. There is distinct panic in her eyes, so I take her elbow and lead her onto our train.
“You don’t ride the metro much?” I ask. There are no seats to be had, so we hold on to a pole at the center of the car, propped up by the press of people around us.
“I—my apartment is only a couple blocks from the office. I walk to work.” She is staring and I can’t tell if it’s at me or the man whose armpit I have found myself in.
“What if you want to go somewhere else?”
Petra shrugs. “I don’t usually.”
For a moment, my chest aches, because I understand how small her world is. I love being a word hoarder. But I also love taking Elia and Sal to the zoo, or running with Seth around the tidal basin, or buying fresh rosemary bread at one of the weekend markets.
Of course Petra would need to invent an impossible project. She has nothing else to do.
I ask how long she’s lived in the Capital, and Petra bristles. “Six months. I passed the Redactor exam and they found me an apartment so I could work for C&L.”
I want to tell her that I understand how overwhelming it must be, how I’ve lived here all my life and am still discovering new secrets. But I don’t. Instead, I smile and say, “Then you are going to love this place.”
We ride four stops west and then get off at the first station across the river. “You said these are your good walking shoes?” I ask.
“I’ll be fine.” Petra tilts her face toward the sky and is taking such deep breaths I’m worried she may make herself pass out.
“Let’s go then.”
My manuscript thumps against my side in my messenger bag as I lead Petra through the Capital. Our destination is less than a mile from the station so I take my time and the most roundabout way I can think. “This is my neighborhood,” I tell her.
I lead her through the tree-lined walkway between the buildings, where kids blast their music and dance on the steps. We wander around the park beneath the overpass where spherical sculptures, so vague they haven’t been censored, dot the grounds. I show her my favorite restaurant, the air outside heavy with the smell of cilantro and lime. I point out our apartment window when we pass my building and tell her about Seth and Hennie, Elia and Sal.
And I watch Petra soften. I watch her smile at the dancing kids, pretend to understand the public art, drool a little outside the restaurant. When I talk about my family, I watch her eyes fill with homesickness.
As Petra and I reach the edge of town, the evenings settles into a lavender twilight. This is my favorite place in the Capital. A steel bell tower overlooks a field of tulips. The river stretches at the base of the rolling hill. To our right, enclosed by a crumpling brick wall, stands a cemetery that has fallen into disuse by the Post-Republic. Rows and rows of identical tombstones are disappearing beneath an overgrown lawn. The uninterrupted sky stretches above us.
Petra holds her breath as she wanders into the tulip field. She only knows the words yellow, red, purple. I know amber, crimson, magenta. I name them to her, and I watch her mouth the words, trying out the shape of them, how they feel on her tongue.
“See how we need ‘crimson’? Because crimson and red are different when you look closely.”
Petra touches a flower and her fingers are dusted with golden pollen. “Crimson,” she murmurs again, as though it is the name of a friend.
“There’s more,” I say. I lead her up the steps of the belltower, climbing over the cursory rope at the entrance. The bells haven’t rung in decades, though sometimes I dream of them playing vespers to the long-sleeping soldiers. Our footsteps clang up the metallic stairs, and I feel bad for Petra in her pointed pumps. But she keeps pace with me and we climb, climb, climb, until we reach the observation deck more than halfway up.
“Close your eyes,” I tell her. She listens. I lead her toward the window. “You said your favorite word was sky—right?”
“Open your eyes.”
The sky is a brilliant shade of indigo and white pinpricks of stars twinkle down at us. Across the river, the monuments are alight. The sea of tulips beneath us ripples in the wind.
“Azure,” I begin my list. Petra does not look at me because she is staring at the sky like she has never seen it before. “Empyrean.”
Her mouth moves soundlessly, repeating my words after me.
I think I see tears in her eyes.
It isn’t about the project anymore—it’s about Petra. I have one last word—a phrase really—that I had to ask a colleague for assistance with. It may be my new favorite, untamed and full of possibilities.
“Wild blue yonder,” I say.
“Wild blue yonder.”
We stay up at the observation deck for ages, then climb back down only to kick off our shoes and stand among the tulips. Petra slings her heels over her shoulder, her toes pink and blistered. She asks to see my manuscript. I take it out and in the dim light, we pore over the words.
We read aloud words because we like the sound, like absquatulate, flibbertigibbet, and hornswoggle.
We read aloud words because we like their meaning. Aurora casts a golden light over my manuscript as we breathe it into the dark night. Euphoria bubbles up in our throats and we both say it laughing. Gossamer settles over our skin, soft and silky.
We read aloud words because we can.
Only a hollow rumble of hunger reminds me how late it is. The moon is rising above the obelisk monument. From where we sit, it looks as though it has been speared. When I close the manuscript for the night, Petra chews on her lip. She asks if we can meet on our bench again tomorrow.
I offer to ride with Petra back to her apartment, but she says she can manage. Instead I say goodbye at the metro station and she lifts her hand in an awkward wave. The escalator carries her down.
The station is quiet this time of night, so I can stand and think without being swept up by the current of bodies. Was that enough?
The next day in the word count line, my supervisor whispers to me, “Any progress?”
“I hope so,” I fidget. I’m pondering multitudinous—existing in great numbers; comprising many parts—and I’m lost in the vastness of it. All day I have felt as though fire was spreading beneath my skin as I counted down the hours until my meeting with Petra.
“Good work, Clio,” my supervisor smiles knowingly.
After she records my word count and transfers my wages, I run to the square, bumping into gray-suited C&L workers, elbowing my way through the exiting crowd.
Petra is already on our bench, her hands folded neatly in her lap. Her stiff, straight shoulders remind me of the first day I met her—how before my eyes she seemed to transform from human to stone.
I consider all of the rules we broke last night and my stomach drops. If she reports me, what would that mean for the word hoarders? I swallow hard and slide beside her on the bench. Her expression does not change. She is all stone façade.
“How was your day?” I squeak. Any attempt at normal conversation is ruined by the pitch of my voice.
“I proposed a new project. My supervisor liked it and wants me to develop it for proof of concept.” A small smile cracks through her veneer and I understand. This is not malice or lack of feeling. This is an attempt at a surprise.
“What did you propose?” I feel my shoulders relax and loosen my grip on my manuscript.
“That we slowly add words back into language—state-approved slang if you will, start working new words into different forms of entertainment. Expanding vocabulary gives us more control over communication than reducing vocabulary, don’t you think?” Her voice is cold and coy, a wicked grin spreading across her face.
“Your supervisor liked that argument?” I prod.
“It was what he wanted to hear.” She shrugs. Hope flutters in my heart. This is just the beginning. Petra has found a way to open up language and once it is open, nothing will be able to contain it again.
“What do you want the first new word to be?”
“I was hoping you’d help me build a case for,” her face turns bright red and she plays with the hem of her sleeves, “wild blue yonder.”
I open my manuscript, spreading it across our laps. “Then let’s begin.”