Sunday, 22 December 2013

Episode 10: Incognito by name, incognito by nature

At 5am in the morning, Crusade walked towards the I-block and, as ever, his gaze was drawn to the top of the building. There, looking for all the world as if it was floating above the 28-storey tower, was the distinctive circular ball which made the building replicate a lower case “i”, complete with tittle. The tittle was attached by ten-foot high reinforced steel rods and, here, technology and engineering combined to stunning effect. A sensor within the structure charted the sky colour which was simultaneously superimposed on the steel rods. At 5am on a December morning, the steel rods were as dark as the night sky, creating a convincing silhouetted i.

There were many theories as to what was housed within the tittle and the ever-suspicious Conspiracy maintained that it was a satellite monitoring activities and conversations. The architects pooh-poohed this idea and set up what came to be known as the iCam which transmitted footage showing a camera linked to a screen which displayed the changing sky. The tittle, the architects asserted, housed nothing more invasive than that.

It was agreed by all to be an innovative piece of architecture and typical of the individuality which most occupants of I-block saw as their main characteristic. I-block was a welcoming home to Immigrant and Individual; a place with an international outlook, an inclusive melting-pot. Here was a natural destination for those foreign language words which had been absorbed into common usage - loanwords in the parlance of the OED. It was customary for foreign words to be italicised until they were naturalised, at which juncture they shed their italics in written English. I-block was also, of course, home to Italics himself, his sloping gait a familiar sight as he walked around the building.

In some blocks with a more parochial view of the world, to be italicised stigmatised a word, made it an outsider to be viewed with condescension or contempt. This wasn’t the case in I-block: here, naturalised words were proud of their origins and in some cases, words which had been accepted into the OED – such as Influenza, Intelligentsia and Imbroglio – were known to still revert to the same slanted posture as Italics.

Even within this tolerant environment, however, there were some less welcoming words. Insular, Intolerant and Isolationist would throw disdainful looks in the direction of any italicised or naturalised words invoking the retort from more liberal, inclusive occupants of I-block that these surly words spent too much time in the company of Idiot.

It was a building which Crusade enjoyed visiting and in the lobby, he waved to Indifferent, the receptionist, who barely looked up from the novel she was reading. The cosmopolitan air of I-block encompassed a culture of late-night wining and dining and a proliferation of caf├ęs whose opening hours extended into the early hours and beyond. Crusade soon found one such, on this occasion empty apart from one table occupied by Insomnia who sat, gazing out of a window.

Crusade ordered a coffee, sat down and ran his hands through his hair. It had been a difficult night. He’d reached a juncture – that was evident – but had impetuosity alone taken him there? Alone in his room, he viewed the mementoes of his past and began to question his decision to change his identity. Did he really want to face the uncertainty of a new existence just because of Treason’s rejection? And had she merely rebuffed him for the moment anyway?

In his room, he opened a vanilla folder and out tumbled leaflets and paraphernalia from various demonstrations he’d attended, he dug out placards and posters from campaigns which he’d participated in; they'd been a mainstay of his existence. His eyes grew misty as he recalled all those afternoons marching or being a part of an audience, the thrill of triumph when one or other of the campaigns he’d supported was successful. He would bask in the part, however small, which he’d played in correcting an injustice. Did he really want to leave this behind? And leave behind his friends, his colleagues? And all for the uncertainty of becoming a new word with no guarantee of inclusion in the OED.

The answer was yes. The new friends he’d made in the A-block had turned his head and he was now more inquisitive, less accepting of what had been assigned to him. The idea of forging a new identity was thrilling and, yes, there was also the prospect of meeting Treason in his new guise. Surely, she’d be intrigued by his sense of adventure and…well, anything beyond that was pure conjecture.

The recommendation given to him by Bookworm was to visit Incognito, an expert in devising new identities and dispenser of sound advice on related matters. Incognito operated in a grey area outside of normal jurisdiction and only worked on a referral basis. Bookworm was a trusted contact and Crusade was welcomed when he turned up at Incognito’s room at the appointed hour of 8am. Despite the early hour, the time of year and the fact that they were indoors in a dimly-lit room, Incognito wore dark glasses, a long coat and Crusade harboured doubts on the authenticity of the shock of blond hair.

‘Ok, here’s how I operate,’ Incognito said in a soft, monotone voice, face turned away from Crusade. ‘Based on a trusted friend’s word, I’m happy to talk with you. I don’t need to know your name if you prefer not to disclose it but if you do and anything results which involves the authorities, I will not withhold the fact that I helped you. Although there’s no onus on you to tell me your new name, I can advise you as to its plausibility or I can even suggest alternatives. OK so far?’

Crusade nodded. ‘Do you mind if we have some illumination? It’s kinda dark in here.’

A light was switched on allowing Crusade to properly view the room whose only adornments were a desk, computer and a shelf laden with leather-bound books. Incognito had dispensed with the dark glasses, coat and the wig to reveal a black-bobbed hairstyle and a svelte physique: Incognito was a lady. Crusader’s eyes widened at the revelation.

‘It throws most people,’ Incognito said with a smile. ‘Incognito by name, incognito by nature.’

‘This place never ceases to surprise me. So, you’re highly recommended by…by, er, our mutual friend.’

‘Aha, you learn quickly. OK, do you have a name in mind? You do. Do you wish to tell me what it is?’

‘I wasn’t going to but maybe I will. One thing…I expected props or clothes here or something more indicative of the work you do as a sideline.’

‘If anything is needed, I can get it in minutes. I don’t store anything on-site.’

‘Makes sense, I suppose. Well, I had it in mind to resurrect a word no longer in use. It’s ubiquarian.’

‘I’ve never heard of it…and that’s a good start. I’m guessing it means something along the lines of ubiquitous.’

‘You got it. The best definition, I guess, is somebody who can go anywhere. It’s from an 18th century poem so it’s pretty obscure and is also pretty defunct…very much defunct, actually.’

Incognito laughed. ‘That’s clever, very clever. It has a nice ring to it too so you should be able to assimilate yourself back into everyday usage should you wish…and if that’s your aim, I can pull a few strings. But that doesn’t have to be right away; I’d advise getting used to your new identity first. Now, is there anything or anybody you wish to avoid? Put it this way, do you want a complete makeover? I’m good friends with Anaplasty and he’ll be happy to put you under the knife, if needed.’

‘I don’t think I need to go that far. I’m doing this as a reaction to a relationship which didn’t quite pan out as I’d hoped. So it doesn’t have to be anything drastic, maybe a change of hair colour, a new wardrobe, non-prescription glasses…you know, that sort of thing.’

‘OK. Well, this should be pretty easy.’

An hour later, when Incognito had completed her work, she told him to look in the mirror. He did so and gasped; he looked completely different – his grey-flecked, unruly hair was now brown and neatly-trimmed, the rimless spectacles gave him a studious air and the well-cut suit was that of an urbane, debonair sophisticate…an ideal match for his new name. She did know her stuff.

‘Wow. That’s really good,’ he gushed. ‘I’m impressed. I guess our work here is done. Just as a matter of interest, what would your advice have been had I not had a name in mind?’

‘The piece of advice which I give and which is almost always rejected straight away is to ask whether becoming a number has been considered. It’s probably one of the better places within which a word could disappear and, besides, I have a liking for numbers. Or you could become one of those zeitgeist, hybrid words which will soon, most likely, make it into the OED... wellderly, for instance. Other than that, you probably won’t be surprised to hear this from somebody in I-block but I’d go for a foreign word which is likely to cross over into the OED. Did you know that Polish is now the second most spoken language in the UK? I’d go for something Polish which doesn’t really have an equivalent in English and then work on getting it accepted. The Poles have one word in particular which I’m amazed hasn’t been assimilated into the English language. Have you ever heard of kombinawoc? No? It’s a Polish expression which best translates as getting things done through slightly illicit means. It’s a wonderful expression and should be in more general use, a bit like the German schadenfraude. They’re both perfect - one word which needs at least four or five in English to convey the precise meaning.’

‘You’re quite the linguist, then?’

‘Oh, I take an interest in just about anything to do with language. The way I look at it is that there’s not much point in being in a place like this if you don’t. You must share that interest…based on your new name. Speaking of which, I mentioned that I could pull a few strings for you. You know that thing when there’s a list of Words to Watch For published at the start of each year? The 2013 list will be named very soon and I’m a good friend of Lexicon who’s one of the panellists. Want me to put a, pardon the pun, word in for you?’

‘I’m not sure. You did say that it might be best for me to get used to my name first…and I’d prefer to be certain that it’s one I wish to continue with.’

‘Good, you’re going about this the right way. Just bear me in mind should you need any assistance,’ Incognito said with a smile.

‘That’s very kind of you. Well, I guess I’ll be off. Thanks again, Incognito. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you,’ he said extending his hand. She shook it and patted his shoulder.

‘Been a pleasure meeting you too. Good luck…Ubiquarian.’
Next episode: Good cop, good cop and the search for Crusade

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