The Boy Who Used Up a Word
Timmy Erasmus Timmers was a kid. He was just an average kid. He liked basketball, video
games and meat-lovers pizzas. He liked Charlie Chaplin movies and Encyclopedia Brown
books and The Beatles. He even liked his little sister, Annabeth.
So it was not any special, concealed or secret magical power in the eleven-year-old
that led to the strange occurrence that caused such a stir in Baileysville. And then
beyond. Timmy would later say he was just messing around, experimenting. Not in the
evil-scientist sense but in the kid-with-nothing-to-do-on-a-Saturday sense.
The truth is that Timmy Timmers used up a word. He had talked to his friend Ed
"Jackpot" Burton at school that Friday about the possibility. Ed thought it was
a keen idea and was anxious to help.
But Timmy wanted to do it himself.
His hypothesis was this: if he said a word enough times he would use it up. It would
cease to exist, disappear even from the worlds largest, unabridged dictionary. That
was his working hypothesis. Simple enough, if you have the patience.
So, on Saturday, after calling a few friends to see if he could find a ball game or a
companion to explore Bluefield Woods, and coming up empty, Timmy sat down to begin his
experiment in earnest.
Picking the word was a problem, as Ed had predicted it would be.
"Pick something gross," Ed "Jackpot" Burton had said.
"No, I dont want to do gross," Timmy said, with a serious shake of his
"Pick a word your parents use a lot. That way when they want to get mad at you or
something you can take away part of their ammunition."
"My parents dont get mad very often. And when they do they speak so calmly
it really rattles your bones. Theyre not name-callers."
"Hm," Ed said.
Both boys appeared stumped.
So, Timmy decided to pick a word at random. A word he hoped was in common usage, one
whose disappearance would be noticed. But he didnt want trouble.
He opened his Websters and stuck a finger down on the page. It was like picking a
vacation spot by spinning the globe.
"Drakelet, a young drake," the dictionary said.
"Naw," Timmy said aloud.
He closed the heavy book and reopened it like a magician pulling a trick.
"Gruelly, having the consistency of gruel."
"No good," Timmy said. Maybe randomness was not the answer. He gave it one
"Hey," he said. "This has possibilities."
He rolled the word around in his mouth. It was simple enough, brief enough. He could
spend the day and night saying this word over and over easy enough.
At ten-thirteen that fateful Saturday morning, Timmy began.
He lay back against his pillows and began saying the word over and over.
He had no idea how many times he would have to say it. How would he know if he failed?
He hadnt thought about that.
As the afternoon wore on he grew tired. Except for a break for a fried bologna sandwich
for lunch he did not stop saying the word.
At dinner that evening he wolfed down his food.
"Eat slowly, dear," Timmys mother said.
"Ill race you," said Annabeth.
"You got after-dinner plans?" Timmys dad asked.
"No," Timmy said around a half-masticated piece of chicken.
"Dont talk with your mouth full," Timmys mother said, smiling.
After dinner Timmy was hard at it again. His TV remained cold. His video paddles
lifeless on the floor.
Around ten p.m. his dad stuck his head in the door.
"Whatcha doing, son? Chanting?"
"No," Timmy said, anxious not to spend too much energy on unnecessary words.
"Okay. I thought I heard you talking in here. Listen, were going to bed to
read a while and then go to sleep. You dont stay up too late."
"Mm," Timmy said.
"Goodnight, then," his dad said, closing the door.
Around midnight Timmys throat began to hurt. His neck felt tired as if he had
carried something strapped around it. He was losing faith in his experiment.
Then it happened.
Sometime right around the change of dates Timmy found he could not say the word any
longer. Was he just tired?
"Drakelet," he said.
No, he could still talk. He tried to remember the word. He could not. It was gone.
He went to his dictionary but he had no idea how to look up the word because the word
was gone, not only from the dictionary but also from his head. And from the heads of the
rest of the world.
At school on Monday, Timmys teacher, Miss Parrish called on Timmy to read from
their lesson book, from the story about the headless horseman.
Timmy began to read but his voice was croaky.
"Are you ok?" Miss Parrish asked.
"Cold, maybe" Timmy rasped.
"Ok, Wendy Ceccherrelli, pick up where Timmy left off."
At break time Timmy couldnt wait to talk to Ed. He caught up with him in the hall
and pulled him into the bathroom. There was a third grader in there but they didnt
pay him any mind.
"I did it," Timmy whispered.
"You did? It worked?" Ed said. His pleasure was genuine.
"Took all day," Timmy said.
"What was the word?" Ed said in his excitement.
"Its gone," Timmy said.
Ed thought a moment.
"Of course," he said. "Um, now what?"
"I dont know," Timmy whispered. "But the words gone."
"You wanna do another?" Jackpot asked.
"Naw," Timmy said.
"Maybe Ill do one tonight."
"Maybe its not such a good idea," Timmy whispered. It just occurred to
him what the possibilities of this anti-creative force were.
"You did one," Ed said, sulking. "I want to try, too."
Timmy went home that night in a bit of a funk. He was sorry he had used the word up.
All over the world there were gaps and hesitations in peoples speech. It was
slight, almost unnoticeable.
"Oh, whats the word I want?" was heard over and over again.
Timmy didnt know any of that. But, he sensed it. He had made a hole in the world,
in an important part of the world. He had made a perforation in language.
Timmy was very sorry this had ever started. And now, what if Ed did it and then told
someone and they told someone and on and on.
Timmy called Ed on the phone.
"Please dont do it," Timmy said.
"Relish, relish, relish, relish, relish, relish, relish," Jackpot said.
"Why did you choose that word?" Timmy asked.
"I hate relish," Ed said. "Relish, relish, relish
Before going to bed Timmy wrote himself a note. It said, "Relish. Check fridge.
Chopped pickle in a jar."
The next morning Timmy ran to the refrigerator and opened the door. He started pulling
condiments out in a frenzy. His note now said only, "Check fridge. Chopped pickle in
"What are you doing, dear?" his mom, asked. "Ill make you
"Im looking for something." Timmy said.
"Well, what, dear?"
"I cant remember. But Ill know it when I see it," he said.
In the back of the fridge, behind a jar of old honey-mustard, Timmy found what he
wanted. He pulled it out into the fresh air as if he were pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
The jar of chopped pickles was there all right. But where its name was supposed to be
there was blank white space.
"Whats this?" he asked his mom, frantic now.
Annabeth walked through the kitchen, her face smeared with syrup.
"Lets see," Mom said, sliding her reading glasses up to her nose.
"Well, dog my cats, theres no name on it. Ingredients: pickles, salt, water,
"But whats it CALLED?" Timmy shouted.
Timmys mom looked at him over her glasses, a silent reproach to his raising his
"Well, I dont know what it is. To be safe Im going to throw it
And she did. Out it went.
"Now, what would you like for breakfast?"
When Timmy got to school a red-eyed Ed met him on the front steps.
"Ha!" Ed said.
"Yeah," Timmy said.
"Hey, I was happy when you did it," Ed said.
"I know. Im sorry I did it though, Ed. You didnt tell anyone else did
"Just Jackie and Jennie and Shlomo and Flannery and Garland and Pat and Sherri and
"Oh boy," Timmy said.
And thats how it all got started.
When the grammarians at Harvard University traced the trouble back to Baileysville,
Timmy turned himself in.
"This is terrible," one of the grammarians said.
"I know," Timmy said. "I wish I could erase the whole thing. I wish I
could go back in time and undo it."
"Not much chance of that," another grammarian said, a nice-looking lady with
a "Just Read" button on her beige sweater.
"Youve put us in quite a pickle, young man," said the man with the
white beard who seemed to be in charge.
"Dont say pickle," Timmy said.
And so it happened. Little by little the language lost words, lost some very important
words. Little by little writers lost the ability to create magic with the alphabet. It was
a sad time for the planet.
World leaders went on television to plead with people to stop using up words but the
more that they gave away the secret the more people tried it. It was irresistible. It was
quickly out of control.
And it wasnt just in English this was happening. All over the globe people were
using up words just because they could. In Swahili, in French, in Italian, in German, in
Polish, in Hmong.
Writers were in despair. Some stopped writing.
The production of books dropped eight percent the first year. The next year it was down
No one knew what to do.
But a lesson was learned. Even as it trickled away, like sands through an hourglass,
language took on a new significance. People began to appreciate the words that were left.
Yet still they ebbed away. There was no turning back.
Stories, the ones that were still written, and the ones already written, began to have
holes in their sentences. The opening of A Tale of Two Cities now read,
"It was the best of times, it was the of
times." No one knew what went in the cavity.
Some people stopped reading. It was too difficult.
It was a nightmare.
I know. Im a writer. I put this down on paper as a
for all of us.