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'?".
"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."