‘None even come close, the words.’
‘Word-inflation,’ Stice says, rubbing at his crewcut so his forehead wrinkles and clears.
–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Ferdinand Pierce extinguished his mutilated cigar in the ashtray to his left and thumped his meaty fist against the table. Perversely intrigued by the spectacle of his hand’s initial contact with the tabletop and subsequent expansion into a fleshy pulp, board members fell silent.
“Gentlemen,” Ferdinand said.
His audience widened its eyes, which widening was the Universal Symbol of Attentiveness.
“I’ve called you together to avert immanent crisis,” continued Ferdinand, all in one breath. “You represent the brightest minds of the Communication Corporation™” (the tacit “TM” unarticulated but undeniably present) “and America’s only hope.” He placed his hands on his heavy stomach in a gesture of support. “As you gentlemen know, The Communication Corporation™” (ditto) “is without competitors in its sector, save for The United States Manufacturers of Brail, who, rather obviously, have a very limited customer base.”
His statement was met with eye-widening signifying agreement (signifying also recognition of the subtly derisive unspoken omission of the unspoken “TM” which, rightfully, belonged at the end of “The United States Manufacturers of Brail”—an unstated slight only a room of Communication Corporation™ specialists could detect).
“Well, gentlemen, we’re about to return to a state of communicative anarchy. To the time of interpretative chaos.”
The board members, well versed in the Corporation™’s history, knew that the two preferred modes of expression prior to the invention of Words©, patented by the Corporation™ in their most rudimentary form early in the 1950s and perfected by the 80s (though never completed, as that was a poor business model), had been 1) elaborate pantomime and 2) flag semaphore. The transition to Words© had been gradual and had faced resistance from semaphoric scholars, who claimed the translation of silent works into Words© was near impossible and who violently gesticulated something to this effect at a series of wordless hearings. Academia opposed the operation, conspicuously not-articulating complaints that the proposed system was capitalistic, homogenizing, and impersonal, that to mass-produce communication undermined its private character, robbing each utterance of its singularity. In a deliberately vocal press-release, the then young (and surprisingly thin) Ferdinand Pierce had delivered the compelling counterargument that the effect of myriad individual languages (the accepted and inevitable result of speech-by-semaphore, a notoriously hermeneutically challenging medium, and speech-by-elaborate-pantomime, an art long considered to be the same. Since, both events have been incorporated into the Olympics, in formal recognition of their difficulty) was universal misunderstanding. This simple argument secured the Corporation™’s virtual monopoly on communication. The board members nodded in acknowledgement of the above specificities, all of which were implicit in Ferdinand’s statement, present in the interstices between his Words© (something only a trained Communication™ professional could be expected to recognize. This, incidentally, was the reason Implications© had been such an unsuccessful product, lasting only a month on the market and incurring monumental net losses).
Satisfied that they had understood, Ferdinand proceeded. “Throughout the Corporation™’s history, we’ve never been faced with as severe an inflationary cycle. As you know, Words© were initially in such high demand that we could barely meet it. Of course, since then, we’ve managed to expand our production capacity substantially, and we’re able to donate Words© to charities at minimal cost to the company and at maximum benefit to our public image.”
The board members knew he was referring primarily to the Articles© and Prepositions© lines, which were staples in any basic vocabulary, and which the Corporation™ allowed the government to distribute in basic welfare packages, along with food stamps and health insurance, for a reduced fee. Annually, the Corporation™, motivated by some combination of philanthropic seasonal spirit and concern for appearances, gave away baskets of Words© in the Ye Olde English© and Vintage 70s Slang© lines—lines that were doing poorly in standard retail settings anyway (something which, the Corporation™ adamantly maintained, had nothing to do with their selection as the Words© in the yearly giveaway baskets).
“But, gentlemen, the entire American economy has become dependent on the Love© line, a line whose production, I’m afraid, we’ve disastrously bungled.”
The board members, accustomed to Ferdinand’s habit of stopping just short of his meaning, as waves stopped just short of mid-beach, had grown expert at the art of Ferdinand-interpretation, and were well-informed enough to supply for themselves those vital pieces of information which he neglected to mention or euphemistically passed over. This was a prime example of the latter tactic. The Corporation™, in a gross initial underestimation of Love Words© success, had manufactured a number incapable of meeting market demand. Indeed, tales from this time of scarcity persisted, and, allegedly, words like “love,” “dear,” and “adore” had acquired, in their rarity, such a staggering value that to possess them sent people into ecstasies. These stories, to the modern and well-stocked American, had the “when-I-was-your-age-I-walked-miles-to-school-in-the-snow” quality of fiction, and were not widely believed. It was historical fact, however, that Love Words© had once been remarkably expensive. The couples who’d been privileged enough to own Words© of such immense worth and such incredible meaning were so few that they were all well-documented, the most celebrated example being that of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, who won their set in an elite auction for the price of 20 million dollars (a sum worth more prior to subsequent inflation). There were rumours of imprudent couples who had sacrificed everything to purchase Love Words© and financially crippled themselves in the process. Reportedly, such couples were so enthralled with the new horizons of Communication™ opened to them that they hardly cared or remarked upon their living conditions. One such couple, the owners of a French edition of Love Words©, had been reduced to extreme poverty but had not even noticed until years later, when they found themselves suddenly destitute, which events reportedly forced them to deal in black market puns (an endeavor producing more financial difficulties in that it necessitated the further purchase of a Secondary Associations© set) in order to subsist. But, legend had it, even then, the couple was blissfully happy, steeped in incomparably valuable meaning, able to Communicate™ so fully that their entire frame of reference was shared. Love Words© were so rare, it was said, that each time one was spoken, it had the novelty of a word never-before-heard, a color never-before-seen, a pitch never-before-sung, and as such evoked indescribable sensations. Love Words© were startling each time they were repeated; they were forever unsettling, so strange and shocking that their owners never grew immune to their power. To own them was to learn them anew each time one spoke them, it was said, as to love was to fall in love with the object of adoration at each encounter . This particularly popular account was generally considered to be the fabrication of the Corporation™’s wily advertising department, as such happenings appeared unrealistic to the point of unimaginability to jaded modern listeners, who were quick to point out that it was near impossible to ignore the indignity of operating a Punnery, even Paris’s first, in this era of directness and maximized efficiency.
The Communication Corporation™, upon realizing Love Words©’ profitable potential, launched an advertising campaign written by Pablo Neruda and entitled 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair, a initiative purported to be the most moving and effective in advertising history. Again, however, the Corporation™ issued too few sets, provoking consumer outrage. In a final attempt to correct their error, the Corporation™ had so excessively overcompensated that the market was practically flooded with Love Words©, now purchased for any and all occasions. The phrase “I love you ” quickly replaced “thank you” as the country’s most common phrase. It became a response to almost anything, from the provision of information regarding weather conditions to the loan of a pencil. The preponderance of love served to quickly devalue Love Words©. In a touching and ironic return to the favoured speech patterns of the Silent Time, the romantic few relied on symbols—flowers, chocolates, and the like.
The board members knew all this. Some widened their eyes; others nodded.
“The Corporation™ won’t go under,” Ferdinand said, slapping the table heartily. “We’ve got lines whose obscurity renders them inflation-proof. The Literary Language© line, for one, is absolutely unsusceptible. Rare editions of the Philosophical Terms© line are priced at around a billion dollars. They’ve maintained their value and appeal. Gentlemen, I am not concerned for the company. No, I am concerned for America, for its integrity, for its ongoing economic and expressive crisis. And so, gentlemen, I turn to you to save the Love Line©, which, I will add parenthetically (is not our sole source of revenue but was, until this latest inflationary cycle, extremely lucrative). Gentlemen?”
The question hung in the air.
Silence. The board could not find words radical enough for their thoughts.
1 Love©, Fall in Love©, and Object of Adoration© are the exclusive property of The Communication Corporation™.
2 Also the exclusive property of The Communication Corporation™–increasingly unenviably, much to the Corporation™’s dismay.