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A French Borrowing

Arkadiusz Kwapiszewski

ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2013. Our third story is Arkadiusz Kwapiszewski’s ‘A French Borrowing.’

On Monday the House of Commons gave the green light to the Ministry of the English Language’s most recent bill. On Tuesday it passed through the Lords, where no amendments happened. By the end of the week the document acquired Her Majesty’s signature. From then on it was a fact that the British would borrow a hundred and seven French words into their language, and the bureaucratic apparatus went on to import one by one all the terms and expressions listed in the bill.

The press paid little attention to these developments; few people bothered to read the word list from top to bottom. The public had grown accustomed to this type of bill, and they could hardly be expected to go into detail over every single one of them, especially since the MOTEL came up with new ideas on a weekly basis. What’s more, the agreement with the French dated back to nearly a thousand years before. Since then the MOTEL had accumulated an unrepayable amount of debt, becoming the number-one reason for shame and bitterness of the nation. The equally large obligation to the ancient Romans had been annulled due to historical rises and falls, but – to everyone’s quiet dismay – France made it to the modern era in a relatively good shape, and its lawful demands had to be attended to. It was a matter of honour for the British to pay back what they owed. They breathed a sigh of relief when in the nineteenth century, in the times of the empire, the vocabulary-trade shifted towards export. Although it remained a matter of common understanding that their etymological account could never be fully cleared, it was nice to see steps made towards repayment, if only to display the goodwill of the nation. That’s also why – when on rarer occasions the minister announced another loan from the French – it rasped the public’s sore spot to hear the news. At such moments they preferred to look away, their heads bowed in patriotic shame.

This being the prevailing mindset, the bill had few echoes during the initial stages of implementation. The ministry moved on to work on its next project, a mass export of another batch of science terms, undertaken as always in cooperation with the Americans. As regards the French borrowings, they were put on the shoulders of the Civil Service, where they would be smoothed out, polished and adapted to local standards before being released for the public use. Two months passed and nobody who wasn’t directly involved in the work remembered the one hundred and seven words anymore.

This was not the end of the story, however. Slowly the new words settled down in the English language like tea grounds on the bottom of a teacup, their popularity building up, some favoured and used more than others, but all positively alive, vibrant and fresh coinages. And yet, among those one hundred and seven was one specimen which tended to arouse suspicion. Of course, it wasn’t until some days later that the public sniffed out the scandal. But when they did, all hell broke loose, with letters of complaint streaming from all parts of the country, all bemoaning one particular word in respect of which – it seemed – nobody could stay neutral.

The word in question was yeppererer. All national newspapers, pressured by its letter-sending readership, ran full-length articles about it. Over several pages they explained the word’s meaning, speculated about its origins and expressed their thoughts on the subject. The tabloids were generally in favour and the broadsheets against – though substantial exceptions come to mind, making this rule very unreliable. In either case, the conclusion remains clear: the public opinion was divided.

As reported by the press, yeppererer was a noun designating a person who hasn’t yet achieved his or her full potential as a human being. As such, the word denoted almost everyone except perhaps the most distinguished personalities. As such, it could be classified as a synonym to the noun human, replacing it adequately in many cases when a synonym was asked for. But the oft-repeated argument against the word was that a deep attachment towards yeppererer would slow down or even bring to a halt the personal growth of its numerous supporters. Having a strong affection for it, they wouldn’t want to be called by any other name: they would sooner drop their personal growth altogether than give up yeppererer‘s semantic embrace. More universally, the nay-sayers worried that a synonymous union between human and yeppererer would make human faults widely acceptable and obliterate the struggle for perfection.

To these objections the supporters replied that – due to a structural fault in mankind, the original sin or some other such concept – perfection was unattainable anyway. What they put forward instead was a quiet, unambitious lifestyle, devoid of serious concerns, liberal to one’s failures, humble on all fronts. Peace, few internal conflicts and mild happiness throughout – these were the values promoted by yeppererers.

Of course, not everyone would accept that. Loud were the voices of objection – and not least to the aesthetic side of yeppererer. The word was traced back to the MOTEL’s recent loan, but beyond that its etymology was a mystery, an insolvable puzzle. Amateur language enthusiasts protested that it couldn’t have originated from the French language – that it was an unpardonable hoax. Yeppererer was proclaimed a bureaucratic error, a typing mistake, a monster born out of someone’s inattention. The triple er at the end had the appearance of having been produced by a cat capering about on somebody’s keyboard. The believers in such conspiracy theories consulted a number of professional linguists in order to confirm their darkest suspicions; but the experts proved to be too much agape by the surrounding havoc to formulate a coherent hypothesis – as often happens with people who are passionate about their job. Without the linguists’ prescriptive help the public needed to resolve the dilemma between themselves.

The protesters lobbied the government to ban the word from everyday speech. They wanted to see it evicted from dictionaries; to make its utterance punishable with a fine – even with prison, if the crime was repeatedly committed. Vehemently they struggled to preserve their vernacular tongue’s purity. Allowing a blob like yeppererer to enter the English lexicon – they argued – would be an undeniable sign of the language’s long-prophesied deterioration. If yeppererer was ever admitted into popular usage, it would be the beginning of an end – while for older people, who had had a richer experience of the gradual decline of English, it would be the end of an end: a linguistic apocalypse.

As the battle raged, however, the balance of power shifted towards progress and against reactionary attitudes. Weeks later the advantage was on the side of yeppererers, who relished their newfound identity – and they wouldn’t tolerate any discrimination! They wouldn’t have their freedom of speech limited! Spitefully they uttered yeppererer with fanaticism and under any excuse: yeppererer, yeppererer, yeppererer. Entire books were published to boost the count of the yeppererer‘s occurrences: over four hundred pages filled exclusively with repetitions of yeppererer. Novels written by yeppererers for yeppererers and extollingly reviewed in yeppererer magazines. These and similar initiatives worked effectively to advance the cause of yepperers. By the end of January 2005, yeppererer had climbed into the leading one hundred on the chart of the most commonly used British words and expressions.

To all intents and purposes the conflict had been resolved. The opponents of yeppererer had exhausted themselves, and were almost resigned to the ultimate damnation of their beloved tongue. Not many had withstood the strong social pressures: the weak-willed among the puritans had gone over to the enemy camp, referring to themselves as converted yeppererers, first with hesitancy and then with self-congratulatory pleasure. But those few who resisted were determined to go down with their ship, stubbornly faithful to the last breath – a troop of modern martyrs. At the end of the day, it was them who were proven victorious.

At the outset of the year 2005, namely, the Oxford English Dictionary dubbed yeppererer a cliché word. Either as a result or as a cause of this, yeppererer fell out of fashion as abruptly as it had got there. A year later, it became one of the few examples of a dead word. Professional linguists – who had regained their composure by then – were in unanimous agreement that nobody used it anymore, not even in the secluded parts of the country. The word was simply crossed out of the English as we know it today. Smiles of satisfaction showed on the faces of those few who still cared – and that was the end of it. Nobody learned anything. As ever, people failed to achieve their full potential as human beings.

Arkadiusz Kwapiszewski is at St Hugh’s College, Oxford.