Words have power. It’s something not a lot of people seem to realise. When a mother scolds a child, what she tells him will shape how he grows up. A girl, when contemplating suicide, may recall the cutting words that someone teased her with twenty years ago. It may no longer apply, but those words are still painfully remembered. Words that someone did not think through before saying could lead to misunderstandings, which could result in things as small as broken friendships or bigger things, like war. If words didn’t have power, there wouldn’t be such a thing as unprintable words. People do not encourage saying such words because their utterance stirs feelings in people.
Katelyn, a teenage girl living in Brooklyn, New York, fresh from a stinging break-up with her erstwhile boyfriend of four months, had just come to this realisation. During their break-up squabble, they had hurled all sorts of epithets at each other. At the end, Katelyn was hurting inside quite badly. And Dwight hadn’t even laid a finger on her. He had simply said a few choice insults.
After two days of crying as she healed from the emotional wounds, it got her thinking. The things you say to someone can have a really great potential to make someone feel loved, lonely, or any emotion in between. She wondered, what power could she wield with words?
Katelyn started to experiment with taboo words that she knew, often saying them aloud, sometimes on the school bus, and a few times in class. She upset a few friends, and some teachers. She was called into the principal’s office for scolding vulgarities.
She realised she was getting nowhere with words in the English language. She continued research on taboo words in other languages. Experimenting with these was, of course, safer, but they didn’t seem to invoke any response. She had to find words that affected people on a universal level.
Then it hit her. If the words that we know could already so profoundly affect someone, could there be a whole level of words unknown to human beings that could cause more than that? She remembered her Sunday School classes, when God uttered, “Let there be light,” and the universe came into being. But God probably would have said something of which its translation is merely a shadow. What would those words be?
Katelyn trawled word forums. She delved into religious manuscripts in their original language. She started borrowing books from the library and attending extra classes to learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, among other languages. Her excuse to her mother was that she was interested in foreign languages so she could become an interpreter. Her mother was glad that Katelyn had respectable academic pursuits, and left her alone at that.
One day, her mother walked into her room to find Katelyn scribbling furiously on the walls.
“What are you doing, Katelyn!” she cried.
“Oh, just writing down some words I need to memorise,” Katelyn replied.
“You should have told me! I could have bought you a whiteboard -”
“The walls are good enough, Mum,” she assured her.
“You’re going to clean them off, aren’t you?”
“When I’m done with them.”
Her mum left worriedly, concerned about her daughter’s odd behaviour in the recent months. She went to consult a psychologist friend about Katelyn.
“Sounds like a case of hypergraphia, or an overwhelming urge to write,” said Dr. Chambers.
“Is it harmful to her?” she queried.
“Not exactly, but she will want to write on any surface she sees,” he answered. “What we need to do, to prevent any possibilities of vandalism when she feels the urge to write on public property, is to supply her with enough writing material like notebooks to give her an alternative to defacing public surfaces.”
“Katelyn’s been acting oddly lately, especially since her break-up with her boyfriend,” said her mother.
“The trauma of the break-up could have affected her mentally,” the doctor said. “Could I have a chance to meet with her to talk a bit?”
“Sure,” her mother readily agreed. “I’ll bring her along as soon as I can.”
Katelyn was finally making progress. Just the other day she stumbled upon a particular word. It wasn’t in English; it was from the precursor of the language of the !Kung Bushmen in the Kalahari desert. The next day, in school, Jenny Parsons, one of the ‘popular’ girls, called her a bitch. Katelyn uttered the word, and Jenny started to strangle herself. Her initial horror slowly gave way to a sense of exhilaration.
This incident got her called into the principal’s office again. This time, her mother and Dr. Chambers were there as well.
“I don’t know what exactly happened in the school corridor, Katelyn, and why Jenny started to strangle herself,” the principal said. “What did you say to her?”
“I’ll rather not repeat it,” Katelyn said.
“How could something you say cause such a reaction in her?” the principal asked.
“I must have used one or two choice words that affected her a bit strongly, I guess,” Katelyn replied. “I’m sincerely sorry, I didn’t mean for her to react like this.”
“Katelyn,” said her mother, “You can’t keep getting into trouble like this! I thought you were finally focusing your energies on some beneficial diversions.”
“Katelyn,” the psychologist spoke up, “What I’m seeing is perhaps a case of coprolalia, or the inability to control yourself from saying obscene language. I’m suggesting you see me, maybe once a month -”
“No! I’m not going to see a psychologist! I’m fine!” Katelyn cried.
“Perhaps you need some therapy after your break-up -”
“It’s not Dwight, okay! I’m okay!” she ran out of the room, cursing them in her heart, knowing if she had said those words aloud, they would all have dropped dead at that very moment.
“Teenagers,” the principal sighed. “Just watch over her, Ms. Johns. She’s a bright kid. She just needs a bit of direction.”
Her mother nodded in agreement. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Katelyn was excited. She had just discovered a word, a really powerful one. She could feel its destructive power as she recited it mentally. She was scared, in fact, of what this word could do, she dared not say it out loud. She opened her notebook and transcribed it into English.
She was about done when she heard a cough behind her. Startled, she quickly shut the notebook. It was her mother.
“Darling, what are you doing?” she asked kindly.
“Nothing, Mum,” she said nervously.
“I hope you’ve been doing okay, we haven’t been talking a lot lately,” her mother said as she walked towards her desk.
“What’s this?” she picked up the notebook.
“Mum! Don’t -” before she could stop her, she was already flipping through it.
“Oh, so these are your language study notes? Interesting,” she said as she continued flipping through Katelyn’s notebook.
“Mum!” she tried to snatch the book back, but her mother held it tightly. “Can’t a mother know what her daughter is doing?” she demanded as she went through the pages.
Katelyn was afraid her mother would read out one of the words, and something bad would happen…
“Perhaps I could give it a try,” her mother mused as she turned to the last page. Katelyn felt a rising panic within her. She reached out to grab the book.
“No, Mum, no -“
Her mother read the word aloud.
“AHH!” Katelyn screamed as she felt her eardrums tighten. She clasped her ears and went down on her knees. The house started to shake.
“What’s happening?” her mother shouted.
Katelyn dove down, and her mother covered her protectively as white plaster rained all around them. Katelyn closed her eyes, dreading what she would see as she heard different parts of the house crashing into each other.
The rumblings stopped. Her mother didn’t move.
She pushed her unmoving mother up. She seemed really heavy. She lifted herself out from underneath, and realised she had been pinned down by a large part of the ceiling.
“Mum!” she checked her mother’s body. “Please, you can’t die!” she pleaded as tears started to roll from her eyes.
She looked around her. Not only had her house collapsed, so had all the houses in the vicinity. In fact, she couldn’t see a single intact house. And where were all the people?
She would later find out that her mother’s utterance of the Word had brought about widespread death and devastation, not only in her town, but across her state, her country, and around the world. It was a word that humans were not supposed to be privy to, a word reserved for the powers that be, to be used only when They, in their wisdom, would know when to use. Not for human beings and their loose tongues.
Of course, you must be wondering, what is this Word?
I cannot tell you what the word is. It is a dangerous word. The less people know it, the better.
But instead of a word that brings about death, perhaps, one day, you will learn a word that brings about life. When I feel you are ready.