It’s late, far past her bedtime, and my nine-year old is in the hallway, nose cozy in a book. She points to one word on the page, seeking out a definition.
“Cutthroat,” I say. “It means vicious, without scruples.”
“What are scruples?”
“Morals. Your sense of right and wrong.” She nods and wanders back to bed, still reading as she goes, her downturned face lit by a clip light on the spine. She hasn’t looked up once, navigating halls and corners through a sixth sense given up to avid readers, bookworms — just like me.
As a writer and a reader, I’m a scavenger of words, their roots sunk deep in time. I dig through layered meanings, brush the ragged edges of long-forgotten definitions, frilled and feathered connotations. Small words, simple, can open up like origami. I have a hardbound copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, that massive tome with text so small you need a magnifying glass to read it. It’s full of secrets and surprises, myriad gifts and gems between the bindings.
I flip the pages. Before I get to “scruple,” I discover “scrumple” (“to crush, fold, wrinkle”) and “scrumpy” (a type of hard cider). These are old words, awaiting resurrection, begging for a tale. They are stories in themselves, buried in the margins.
None of them are neatly tied. “Scruple” has its Latin roots in “pebble.” Cicero made the figurative leap from pebble to prod, a nagging at the heel, a pester at the sole turned soul. But a “scruple” is, as well, a measurement of weight, a unit in an arc, a fraction of an hour and a small part of an inch. Our scruples break things down — weight, distance, time and thought — into their disparate fragments, splayed out for examination. A scruple is a mote writ large, a dredge unearthing doubt.
So many meanings, rooted down in seven letters, s-c-r-u-p-l-e. And what of “cutthroat,” lingering in the darkened hallway, skimmed across the page? It’s true that “cutthroat” is a murderer with a knife, but it is, as well, (1) an acrid Texan grape, and (2) a West African bird with scarlet at the throat. The combinations are enticing, like imagination soup. Such words gesture at their stories, their character and plot. They hint at questions bright as sparks. How are scruples lost? Could a cutthroat grow remorse, dark-alley wounds open for re-suture? Confess her sins to a ruby-throated bird, a winged harridan drunk on scrumpy?
Every story has a pebble at its heel. And yet, most writers are in love with the very words that plague us. We spend our days, our nights, inside them. We tug and weave and force collisions, asking, always, “what can I make of this?” Shakespeare did it best, re-inventing English, cobbling known to new. To him, we owe “amazement,” “lustrous,” “bedazzled,” “madcap,” “gnarled,” and “zany.” Along with Romeo and Juliet, we garnered “castigate” and “changeful.”
Language has always been a storyteller’s game, played for joy and stakes. We pick up words like pennies, bright with luck. For years, I carried “palimpsest” like a token of myself. It comes from the Greek “palimpsēstos,” which means “scraped.” In ancient times, scribes rubbed or washed their parchments clean in order to reuse them. Every document was written and erased, layered meanings left entangled. Every text was more than one. Every story came with echoes.
Don’t we all?
Writers aren’t alone in this. We all find words to sketch our boundaries. We understand ourselves inside their shadows and their light — “shy,” “smart,” “athletic” or a “klutz.” “Alone,” repeated once too often, chills just like a pall — while “love,” etched into belief, transforms. Somewhere deep, even children understand that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can maim us longer. And words can make us over. Better than a haircut, a new set of words — “courageous,” “survivor,” “hope” — can redefine our limits, like redemption.
What words will you choose?
Today, I hang to “writer-mama,” with all its slapdash, harried, hyphenated gaps. I celebrate “shenanigans,” with its origins unknown, always spelling mischief, intrigue, tricks. Like my daughters, “shenanigans” pushes at its limits, spirited and flush. These days, I bask within its glamours. I write stories of enchantment, magic-carpet tales. I write for bookworms, like my children, like myself. I write for readers lit up from below by book lights on the spine. I write, prying at the heart of words, cutthroat for the tale.
Lisa Ahn's writing has appeared in Quiddity, PANK, Limestone, Prick of the Spindle, Toasted Cheese and Literary Mama, among others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, two spunky daughters, three cats, and a dog who steals everybody's socks.