Friday, 25 October 2013

Episode 1. OEDipuss & Omnishambles

Words: we use them continuously. We speak, read, write, text…all without considering the words themselves. But that’s understandable; words don’t exist, you know, really exist. Or do they?

The black-and-white cat padded along a corridor, otherwise deserted and dimly illuminated by uplighters which cast conical shadows below them on the yellow walls. The cat paused intermittently at various doors for an exploratory sniff and glanced up at the uplighters’ illumination reflected back from windows which showed darkness outside. Darkness arrived early at this time of year – so soon after the winter solstice – and a hush prevailed in the C-block building in Wordsdrow, the sprawling campus which housed the occupants of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Coming to a halt outside a room where light seeped around the frame of the door, the cat tried to wiggle a paw underneath. He seemed to have found his destination and stood on his hind paws to scratch the door until it was opened. A man peered out, frowned at the apparent phantom presence while the cat daintily skipped past him and into the room.

‘OEDipuss! You’ll trip somebody up one of these days,’ the man said, smiling as OEDipuss headed towards a window sill and jumped up on to it.

The room was furnished with two well-worn, plump sofas and a few armchairs of a similar vintage. Above a full-to-bursting bookcase hung a framed print of Samuel Johnson, his inquisitive gaze taking in the surroundings. As well-worn and equally well-upholstered as the furniture were the room’s occupants: Correct and Correspondent draped languidly across sofas, Coin ambling back to his armchair while Clever rose from his and walked over to OEDipuss. He scratched the cat’s chin as he gazed out of the window across the campus towards the eye-catching I-block, a 28-storey tower topped off by a distinctive circular ball which seemed to float above it. The effect was to replicate a lower case “i”, complete with tittle.

OEDipuss glanced towards a table where a box of chocolates, the top layer almost empty, nestled alongside half-filled glasses. Deeming it unworthy of investigation, he settled down, resting his head on his paws. OEDipuss enjoyed a privileged status in C-block as the resident cat in the building which housed Cat. He acquired his name from Classics who, in turn, gave the name Rex to a highland terrier resident in the neighbouring D-block and said: ‘I just hope I’m not tempting fate in doing so although it would be quite unlikely…and unnatural.’

The ambience was one of languor: streamers hung limply from the ceiling and a few balloons, freed from their moorings, settled amid a carpet of needles shed by the Christmas tree. Correspondent, in thrall to the image of journalists from a bygone age, wore a boxy suit, white shirt and braces while his trilby hat, press pass tucked into its hatband, rested on a coat-peg by the door. He sipped his drink and said: ‘Funny old year.’

‘Funny?’ repeated Coin, a rotund man, his silver hair streaked through with flashes of copper and gold.

‘Well, we’re probably one of the few growth areas around. More words are spoken and written than ever before so we’re surviving the recession. Still, one doesn’t feel entirely secure.’

‘I’m not sure if being a part of this particular growth area is a good thing,’ mused Correct. ‘Loads of new words appear but so many are just whimsical, passing…and much of the guff being written, tweeted and texted doesn’t exactly contribute to the collective pool of knowledge, does it?’

‘You’re right,’ said Clever. ‘As usual.’

Coin hiccupped and mumbled: ‘Ooops, excuse me. It’s the time of year for some over-indulgence.’

The days around Christmas were seen as down time for words. People didn’t do much thinking or writing beyond shopping lists and banal greetings so a degree of latitude was exercised by the OED occupants. The door opened and a dishevelled man stumbled into the room.

‘It’s Cutback,’ said Coin. ‘Come and join us, old chap.’

‘Able C-men!’ exclaimed Cutback, swaying slightly. ‘Been having a few festive tipples in the bar. Well-earned, I think, after the year I’ve had. It’s been hellish and I can’t see much change next year.’

‘One thing being in demand, I suppose, but your name is rarely mentioned in positive terms these days.’

‘Don’t I know,’ Cutback grumbled, flopping into an armchair. ‘Bloody Coalition! What really bugs me is how they try to dress me up as Rightsizing and Economising but we know what they mean. I suppose all of us words are under threat these days. Anyway, guess who’s downstairs in the bar right now…Omnishambles. Buying drinks and acting the big shot. When a word gets the OED Word of the Year award, it can really turn their head.’

Omnishambles, recently nominated OED Word of 2012, had already become an unpopular figure courtesy of his habit of loudly drawing attention to himself around Wordsdrow.

‘He has an entourage now as well,’ added Cutback. ‘Trending was with him, even Pleb was there.’

Coin scowled. ‘That’s so typical of buzzwords…they’re either words which didn’t exist a few years ago or which suddenly find themselves in the news. They get ideas above their station and you can’t escape the blighters. Let’s see if Omnishambles and Trending are still around in a couple of years. They burn brightly for a while – too brightly in some cases – and burn out just as quickly.’

‘Exactly,’ chimed Correspondent. ‘Just like Vuvuzela in 2010. Blaring away at everybody but now you, literally, hardly hear a peep from him. The ones I feel sorry for are words like Twitter. Remember him a few years ago? Always immaculately turned out, bucolic chap, enjoyed the outdoors…but now he’s a byword for ego-maniacs broadcasting their every move and thought and he’s become a pitiful sight. I saw him in the bar the other day, wearing a shabby, stained suit, hands trembling as he polished off another drink. I felt so sorry for him.’

‘Journey...there’s another one,’ sighed Correct. ‘A solid, reliable sort; happy just to travel from A to B but then we get TV shows with rapacious, attention-seeking, wannabe captains of industry or caterwauling, emoting karaoke singers who are all on a journey…sorry, an “amaaazing journey.” And poor old Journey has to lend his name to this rubbish. No wonder he looks so disconsolate these days.’

A pensive hush fell which was broken by Coin: ‘Sudden fame or notoriety can unhinge anybody. Me? I like the idea of permanence, quiet permanence. I’m lucky. Although I’m told that I’m not as valuable to society as I once was, I’ll most likely be around forever. All of us here will be, hopefully.’

‘Don’t bank on it,’ Cutback said although levity returned as another bottle was opened and the second layer of the box of chocolates unveiled. Coin hiccupped again. The indolent air was disrupted when Crisis rushed into the room.
Next Crisis and others

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