What we pay with in word country

In word country, words aren’t just what you buy. You can pay with them too. Not word by word, mind you; a word by itself usually doesn’t work as payment in a value exchange, except for words like “Thanks.” What people want are words in sentences. Words that signify obligations and expectations and negotiate status levels. The economy of social interaction.

This is pretty plain once you see it in action. Every child is taught it: a request with “please” in it is usually worth a little more than the same request without “please” because “please” acknowledges that you don’t have the right to make flat demands, so it doesn’t borrow as much status from the other person. And an indirect request, which allows the other person more latitude, costs you less – is worth more – than a direct request, which demands more of the other person.

Consider Mark, a word grower. He’s tending his words one afternoon in harvest season. He’s by the side of a dirt road, not too far out of town. People walk past every so often. Mark hasn’t set up a stand. He’s not out to sell his words to people who just walk past. But people come out this way not just to listen to the susurrus of the syntax trees and relax in the penumbra of a lexis vine, awaiting Morpheus. There is always the hope of some fresh words to bite into.

“Are you selling words?” A young guy in a hat and T-shirt is standing at road’s edge, looking down at Mark, who is busy pulling some weeds.

“Nope,” Mark says. He’s pretty laconic: he’s not in the business of giving words away for free either.

The guy strolls along a bit but doesn’t really go away. He stands inspecting a particular plant. “Some mighty nice-looking words you got here. Are these Greek roots here?”

“Latin,” Mark says, without glancing over.

“Could I buy one from you?”

Mark jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “There’s a guy with a stand up the road.”

Offer made and deflected without any direct request or rejection. You see: not “Sell me one” and “No, go buy from him.” Much less exposure and demand. This is all small-coin stuff.

“I’ve seen his stuff. Yours looks a lot nicer.” There’s something you can pay: a compliment. Coin in the bank.

Mark can see this guy isn’t going to go away so readily either. He stands up, looks up and down the road. He doesn’t want to commit to selling to anyone else. But there’s someone coming. More than one person, in fact. “If you can wait a few minutes, I might have something I can spare,” he says. Low commitment, low demand: not “Wait a few minutes and I’ll sell you something.”

“Okay, thanks.” The guy wanders just a little ways away and looks at the plants.

A young woman approaches. She is what one calls winsome and sporty. She has just a little bit of playfulness and naughtiness in the way she smiles as she walks up, stops abruptly, stands with her hands knit together behind her bum, leaning her chest forward. “Hi.”

Mark gives her an elevator look: top floor to bottom floor, back to top. He wipes his dusty hands on his jeans. “Good afternoon. Something I can do for you?” So far he’s gotten one word out of her and already he’s offering. This is because she has more that he wants: he likes looking at her and talking to her. Attraction is already partial payment.

“You wouldn’t have any words you could sell me today, would you?” She’s offering him lots of latitude. This is bigger payment than a simple request. She puts him in charge.

“Well, I don’t know…” It’s not that he doesn’t want to sell to her, and it’s not that he doesn’t know, either. He just doesn’t want to put himself in a weaker position with that other guy there, who can see this going on, and he also wants to draw out the interaction with this girl. He’ll get as much interaction as he can from her in exchange for some fruits of his labours. “I might have something.”

The girl wanders up to a vine. “These look nice. What are these?”

“Anglo-Saxon,” he says, and is about to step over and show her more closely, but a man wearing sunglasses and an expensive-looking suit has just walked up. Mark wants to ignore him but it’s too late; he’s already glanced at him.

The man pulls a fiver out of his pocket. “One word. I’ll have that one.” All demand, no payment – not in words, even if he’s offering money.

“No,” Mark says.

“I want that word. Give me that word.”

“I’m not a roadside word stand.” Mark isn’t interested in accepting this guy’s high-status positioning at all. If you let that sort of thing pass, it’s like giving a person a permanent line of credit that they don’t have to pay back.

“You’re selling to her.” He gestures at the young woman.

“I’m talking to her.” Pause. “She’s a lot nicer than you are.” Pause. “I already have buyers for all my words. There’s a guy down the road who has a stand.”

The guy thrusts his fiver at Mark. “That one,” he says, pointing.

“If you want Anglo-Saxon words, I can give you a couple you might already be familiar with.” Pause. “Go. Away.” The guy hasn’t once given anything of value to Mark. Mark doesn’t need the fiver, and there’s been no deference, no inconvenience on the guy’s part, nothing that advantages Mark or disadvantages the potential buyer. And he’s taking up Mark’s time.

“Some businessman,” the guy grumbles as he starts away, a last little shot to see if he can get Mark to open up a vulnerability, at least keep talking. But Mark just snorts a little as he turns back to the young woman. If he spent all his time taking fivers for a word at a time he wouldn’t have much of a business at all.

“So tell me about this one,” the young woman says, gently touching a nimshite.

“You don’t want to get any of that on you,” Mark says. He gently pulls her hand slightly away from it, which is exactly what she had designed the gesture for, and he knows it. Physical contact with an attractive person: that’s definitely coin of the realm. It may not be words, but it’s communication too. Value is given. “That’s not a word you can use in too many places. It’s rather rude. Crude.”

“What kinds of words are you growing here?” She steps back a bit and looks over the lot. She’s demanding time and information from him, but in this case it’s welcome because it puts him in the role of knowledge giver to someone he might want to have a positive balance with, and because she’s paying him something he wants from her: attention.

“Well, aside from the Anglo-Saxon, we have some Greek rootstock, lots of Latin rootstock, and I have a section over here that I’m really fond of, some borrowings from East Asia. Including some really interesting hybrids.” He starts walking towards that row and gestures forward. He doesn’t pat her on the back to encourage her to go forward: that might cost him a bit. “I like these ones. Here, look at this.” He points to sarariman. “And this.” Beisuboru. “Loans from English into Japanese. I’m looking at bringing them back into English.”

“Crafty!” she says. “Oh, what’s this one?” Bakkushan. “Could you spare this one?” She glances sideways at him, her head tilted slightly down: a submissive gesture. He knows he’s being played, but it’s fun, at least for now.

“Trust me,” he says. “You don’t want that one. It looks good at first, but I wouldn’t give it to my friends.” He doesn’t say “I wouldn’t give it to a friend” because that might seem too much like he’s calling her a friend. But he did say “give” – not “sell.” He’s loosening his position.

She makes a pouty little moue. She’s playing it maybe a bit too much: now it’s clear that she’s angling for something she wants, not just to spend time with him, so her currency is devalued slightly.

“These are interesting but not all that useful. You can sink your teeth into them, but you might find they don’t go with a whole lot of things.” He gestures towards the Latin section. Lots there that he can spare. That stuff grows like zucchini, courgettes, marrows. Cross-breeds spontaneously with the Greek stuff too.

They walk in that direction, a few accidental-on-purpose contacts between hands and hips as they walk. Just a little more flirting. He can’t be sure it’s of value to her other than for persuading him, but it’s of value to him and he’ll take it for a little longer before getting back to work. He’s not bored quite yet.

“Ooh! Look at this one!” She darts ahead. “I’ll take this one!” Before he can stop her, she’s run up to a word and grabbed it. “Callitrix! I love it! Like two little girls, Callie and Trix! So crisp and smooth and fast and stylish and… feminine! Oh, I just love it!”

Mark stands there, looking at her, lips pursed slightly. She’s overstepped a little, not paid enough respect in this interaction: her direct and demanding approach has taken money off her balance. But it’s done. He can’t unpick the word. He would have liked it to grow a little more – it’s riper with an h after the t, callithrix. But no point in saying that now.

She knows she’s presumed just a touch too much. But she doesn’t want to risk refusal now. She smiles at him, eyebrows lifted. Then she says “Thank you,” darts over and kisses him on the cheek, and scampers off.

Well. That was a brief bit of entertainment. And not all that expensive. And…

The young guy in the hat has been watching from nearby. He takes a few languid steps up, looking at the young woman as she scurries away. At first he’s not sure what sage or witty observation to make. Mark remains tacit. At last the young man says, “Hope you got a good price for that.”

Mark smiles a little. “If she’d given a little more she might have gotten a little more. Such as the definition of the word.” She gets less value, and he gets a little boost: even if she left with a bit of upper hand, he has the upper hand in the long run because he knows she might be in for a little surprise. Heh.

“What was the word?”


The guy starts to laugh. “A little monkey.”

“Business,” Mark says.

“At least she didn’t take this one,” the guy says, pointing to meretrix.

Mark smiles. The young man has shown some interest and a certain degree of knowledge. A common bond is always worth a little something. He gestures towards the crop. “And what were you hoping might be ready for picking?”

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