And so, it begins --all of this comingling of art and commerce, commerce and art was bound to result in a very strange baby. All babies look strange, granted, but this one seems more likely than most to grow up, turn into some kind of monster, and stomp a large city into dust.
Surely, by now, you are familiar with Barmy Norton’s magnum opus, which I cannot name or I’ll be required to pay her a fee. You are familiar with it if you are a writer or a reader or a follower of Supreme Court cases related to intellectual property. A certain word can no longer be used now by anyone other than Ms. Norton because it constituted both title and entire body of what she generously refers to as a “poem”. She copyrighted and trademarked a single word.
But not just any word.
A definite article. I couldn’t even make that phrase grammatically correct, as there is only one in English, so I have to refer to it as “a” definite article. You know which I mean. It’s not like we’re Germans (der, die, das, dem, den, des) or Francophones (le, la) or Hispanohablantes (el, la). No, we are English speakers and we only have one --or we did, until Ms. Norton staked her copyright flag squarely in the middle of it.
Consider great lines from classic literature without this word ¹:
“It was best of times, it was worst of times, it was age of wisdom, it was age of foolishness …”
“Nowadays people know price of everything and value of nothing.”
“It was a dark and stormy night; rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along house-tops, and fiercely agitating scanty flame of lamps that struggled against darkness.”
And so on.
What is a writer to do? A writer loves language, and we like to have access to every part of it. True, we throw words around like so much paint, and perhaps we should be a touch more conservative, but shouldn’t we have unencumbered access to all of it? We can edit --we don’t, but we can.
And should we need to pay for use of this word? As 99.999999999% of writers can tell you, writing is a surefire way to a full emotional life, but it’s not so great for pocketbooks. Why should Ms. Norton be able to hold our latest royalty check (all $0.14 of it) hostage for no other reason than she typed three letters on a page, copyrighted them, paid for a trademark, considered a patent, and found herself a good lawyer? It’s legal, sure, but it’s not exactly what you’d call ethical or even nice.
But you know what, writers?
We will survive.
Not only will we survive, we will flourish in spite of Ms. Norton’s bizarre infant, even if it is very, very scary.
Writers are creative, right? And some of us write about zombies, so we can handle that baby. I’d like to propose a way forward, and the zombie-fighting writers can consider this, too, when they can catch up.
You will notice I haven’t used this word at all in my essay so far. I did this by using other available words that refer to a specific referent. Words like ‘it’, ‘that’, ‘this’ --they make acceptable substitutes.
Consider some great lines from classic literature that avoid this word altogether. Here are some examples:
“It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
“I am an invisible man.”
“Mother died today.”
None of these lines uses that word --surely we can find clever ways around its use.
But if we can’t, I would like to make a proposal: eht.
Think about it. Eht word “eht” would do eht trick. If we all agree to an understanding of what "eht" means, then eht problem is solved. Language is a fluid thing. If words become obsolete, then new words take their place. True, eht other word didn’t exactly become obsolete, but access to it was restricted. Maybe it should become obsolete, and wouldn’t that be quite eht lesson to Ms. Norton! Why not be more generous and less greedy about eht English language? Share, for Chaucer’s sake! I look forward to eht news about her upcoming bankruptcy once we get this all sorted.
And so, literature will carry on, and so will commerce, but hopefully, they’ll keep their distance from one another except insofar as writers might get paid for what they write (provided what they write is longer than one word and not written in overt cynicism). We can do it. Eht continuation of creative and free expression demands it.
¹ Use of this word in all works predating Ms. Norton’s misshapen cannibal baby have been grandfathered in. Dickens and company can rest soundly in their literary graves while eht rest of us run in terror.