The Gu of Names

When Susan Halwaz's latest documentary dex Gu begins, you are in her body. Facing you - you are in comfortable chairs, under a shade-sail in a tropical setting - is a middle-aged woman, dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, quietly attractive, dressed well but casually and for the climate. You immediately know (even if you didn't already) that this is Callie Arnold, the inventor of Gu, and that you are in her Caribbean home.

You hear and feel yourself ask in Halwaz's rich contralto: "So, who came up with the name 'Gu'?".

Arnold laughs.

"That was a team effort. In which my role was only to approve the choice. Would you like the memory?"

A memory bead emerges from her forehead in your shared virtuality, and you reach for it and run it.

You are Callie Arnold, introspection tells you, fifteen years previously. This setting is indoors, a meeting space with - unusually even then - all five attendees present in person. As you look at each person, the knowledge of their identity comes to you effortlessly, even though this memory was recorded so long ago (technologically speaking), and is notably thinner than the present-day recording. (It is this kind of editing - brilliance applied to the point of invisibility - that characterizes Halwaz and has justly earned her three Williams for Best Documentary.)

"We can't keep calling it 'morphmass'," you say. "We need a marketing name for it, a brand. Morphmass is like vacuum cleaner. What's the 'Hoover' equivalent?"

Everyone stares for some seconds at a bucket in the middle of the table which holds a silvery substance.

Ted Anderson, a jowly thirtyish man with keen, intelligent eyes, narrows them and suggests, "Stuff. Silverstuff. Morphsilver, uh..."

Jill Kwan, compact, fit, impeccably dressed, says, "Protean, ummm, substance, I mean..."

"Protean Silver?" says Ted.

The memory is edited here, presumably removing more brainstorming. You as Callie Arnold say: "Serena, you've got more of a distance from it than we materials people. What's the first thing you think of when you look at it?"

Serena Koslowski, the pale, slightly rumpled control-systems expert, says, "Well, it looks a bit like... goo."

There is a pause.

Ted Anderson says, "Don't you have to misspell it if it's marketing?"

"Gu? With a 'u'?" says Jill.

Tavita Sharma, short and plump but graceful, asks, "Does that mean anything in Japanese?"

You can actually feel the search lag and - even if you already know the answer - you get the excitement, the feeling of new knowledge, as the result is returned: Gu in Japanese means tool, means, or ingredients. Everyone grins.

"Perfect," you say. "Gu it is."

Cut back to Halwaz, who's now with Emeritus Professor Allan Scott, pop linguist, host of The Talk Show and author of the bestseller Verbing Weirds Language. As usual, he has accessorized his white hair and beard and sparkling eyes with the costume of a wizard from popular culture, in this case Albus Dumbledore. His educated Highland Scots accent almost lilts as he says, "I have a few words for you today, and here they are: Gu. Gupe. Cos. Stiff. And what's interesting about those words is that anyone on the street could give you a definition of them that would be different from the definition they would have given just fifteen years ago."

He gets up from behind his desk and writes in front of himself on an airboard in vivid green with his finger, the finger which bears a green ring with a stylized lantern on it. The letters hanging in the air spell: Gu, Gu-Duplicate, Gu-Costume, Stiffstuff. He's a practiced airboarder, and they're perfectly legible even though from his viewpoint they're back to front.

"One measure of how important a word is, how frequently it gets used in a culture, is how it gets shortened. It's like stones being worn down in a stream. Another, of course, is how it forms compounds with other words, but a very important measure of the importance of a word - " he pauses, and points with his finger at Halwaz's viewpoint - "is how it can be dropped out of a compound because everyone knows it's there. And in only fifteen years, Gu has become such a word. Look at this. Gu-Duplicate. That word only appeared about ten years ago, when Gu became affordable enough that people could rent a human-sized amount and use it as a remote avatar to move around on the other side of the world. You probably remember the ads: 'Shake the hand, sign the contract...' Pretty quickly, it got shortened - why have two letter "U"s when one will do? Guplicate. And then you hear the kids..." He affects a teenage drawl. "'Like, y'know, I've gotta gupe over and see the wrinklies, you da?' All of a sudden it's been verbed." He erases most of the letters of "Gu-duplicate" and pulls the remainder together to spell "Gupe".

"And Gu-costume, well, that didn't last long, Gu-cos was good enough, especially since the Japanese had already shortened it and 'cosplay' was an English word already. But hardly anyone puts the 'Gu' on the front of it now. Of course your cos is made of Gu. You wouldn't make it out of, like, fabric, y'know?" He rolls his eyes in a convincing parody of teenage scorn, grins his famous grin, and knocks "Gu-costume" down to "cos" on the airboard.

"And do you know what a 'stiff' is these days? It's someone who's wealthy enough that they own things that stay the same shape all the time. Stiffstuff. Un-Gu. I collect pieces of natural language in the wild, as you know - press them like lizards for my album - and I found a great sentence the other day. Young teen ranting off on her feed. 'So I'm guping New York, and some stiff takes exception to my cos, and I'm all, "Eat turtles, Grandpa," and he gets all excessive, you da?'

"Beautiful. Just beautiful." He smiles, twinkles, and erases the "stuff" from "stiffstuff".

"Gu," he says, "weirds language."

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This entry was posted in Allan Scott, Callie Arnold, Jill Kwan, Serena Koslowski, Tavita Sharma, Ted Anderson. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Gu of Names

  1. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    Welcome to my new novel, Gu. It’s a bit Charlie Stross, innit. And one of the Strossian things about it, besides the frenetic assault of headbending ideas, is that I’ll be writing it right here on this blog. You can talk to me about it as I do so – in fact, I wish you would. Usual disclaimers: I won’t necessarily follow your ideas but I’ll listen, and please keep it friendly – if you want to flame someone go find a forum. This is my virtual living room; if you’re going to be welcomed in, you need to be reasonably polite. You can critique, of course, but if you’re just expressing your dislike of what I’m doing without any kind of constructive suggestions for what you would like, consider saying nothing (because I won’t publish it anyway) and going away.Ahem. Anyway, I’ll be using the comments to talk about my writing process and where some of the ideas come from. For example, Emeritus Professor Allan Scott, who may well be a recurring character, is based almost without alteration (except for age, because this is set in the future) on my favourite lecturer at Auckland University. I don’t think he’s there now – I was at Auckland more than 20 years ago – and I’m not sure where he went, but he was a large part of the reason I did so many language papers (my degree in English came close to being a degree in linguistics at one point). His lectures were always entertaining and completely memorable. He never lectured for a full 50 minutes, and we learned more in the 30 or 40 minutes of one of his lectures than in three of anyone else’s. I still remember the broad outlines of his lecture on the physical process of speech production in about March of 1986, and when I sat down in the exam at the end of that year and there was a question on it I was delighted to find that I recalled practically the whole lecture.His humour, his love of popular culture, and his Scottish accent all helped to make what he said memorable. Of course, when I changed his name (slightly), what I ended up with was the name of the first Green Lantern, and even though he’s more into British popular culture than American, I’m sure if his name was Allan Scott he’d wear a Green Lantern ring as a matter of course. And I can just see him in old age, cosplaying a wizard and hosting a pop linguistics show.The other characters introduced here will definitely be recurring. Susan Halwaz, of course, is making the documentary which you are experiencing. Callie Arnold is the thread which holds it together. And her team – Ted, Serena, Jill and Tavita – will crop up throughout. I haven’t quite decided what each of them does in particular, but they’ll be back.

    • Unfortunately, it looks as if my favourite lecturer may have died. Referring to a co-author of a textbook on English language, Macmillan Publishers say: “The late W. SCOTT ALLAN was sometime Senior Lecturer in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.” I can’t find any more information online than that.

      If it is the same person, I’m sure he’s much missed by everyone who knew him.

  2. Levi says:

    Eat Turtles?

  3. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    Yeah, what’s th’ mat? You not fishing the new say? Pillor.(Imaginary future teenage slang is way too much fun.)

  4. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    (What I had in mind with “eat turtles” was that it was a catchphrase from some pop culture property, like “don’t have a cow, man!”.There’s likely to be quite a bit of reference to imaginary pop culture coming up.)

  5. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    Oh, and “verbing weirds language”?Calvin and Hobbes.

  6. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    “Press them like lizards for my album…”Allan Scott is, of course, a Terry Pratchett fan. One of the wizards in the Discworld books had a lizard press as a boy.Butterflies or leaves are what one would more conventionally press.

  7. Mike Reeves-McMillan says:

    I mentioned Charles Stross before. I’m just now reading his latest (Halting State), and – he’s telling it in second person. I did not know that. (He may have done it in earlier books and I just didn’t remember.)But I have a much better excuse for using second person than he does, in any case.

  8. The “William,” by the way, is the Oscar for virtual-reality productions. It’s named after William Gibson.

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