Monday, November 11, 2013

Would You Like To Buy A Word?

The long-standing television game show, Wheel of Fortune, allows participants to “buy” a vowel, in hopes they will correctly guess the right word and win big prize money.  But what if we weren’t talking about a game and not just vowels, but the real world and words?  What if we could “buy” words and own the rights to that word?

You can’t trademark a word in the English language, but you can trademark a made-up term or name.  What would our world be like if people could buy or sell words, like a commodities trader or real estate broker?

There are over one million words in the official English dictionary, but could we afford to allow someone to buy up words, and thus, control their usage?

Words are the building blocks to sentences—and books.  Without access to the right words, our writing would suffer as would our ability to earn a living from creating articles, books, and stories.  We’d be handicapped in our ability to convey ideas, exchange thoughts, raise a dialogue, or communicate all that is possible.

But which words are the ones we can’t live without?  If “I” or “you” were sold off, we’d be crippled.  “And,”  “the,” and “but” are game-changers, as well.  How about words that mean so much to us, like “love,” “hate,” “hope” and “believe”?  I would be hard pressed to think of a way to substitute words that leave our lexicon, but perhaps a marketplace or word exchange would spur new words to be developed.  It would also force us to familiarize ourselves with words that sit in a dictionary but rarely get uttered.

Maybe we’d start to turn our communications into hieroglyphics.  If “love” is unavailable, we’ll use a heart in its place.  Or we’ll use longer descriptions to explain a concept that can no longer be represented by a single word.  We’d also seek out synonyms to missing words, but subtle differences in meaning will shade our understanding of what is being shared.

Another possibility is we lose an English word for a foreign one.  If we lose, say, “friend” we’ll just use “amigo.”

What would someone who owns a word do if he or she doesn’t give paid permission for others to license use of the word?  If you were the only person who could rightfully use a word, what would you do with it?

Would the word, once it goes unused or is spoken of only sparingly, eventually lose its importance and meaning?  Will society have moved on and filled the void left by its absence?

I’d like to see someone write a book about a single word.  I guess some have.  There have been books about the N-word, the f-word, God, and love.  But these books are about how we use or define these significant words.  Let’s see a book about a word of inconsequence, like “jovial” or “meander.”

Copyrights allow for ownership of how words are strung together in a specific sequence, usually thousands of words at a time.  But could one copyright a book that uses a single word?

The digital world coins phrases every day and bastardizes the English language.  Is it a matter of time before our daily communications replace words with Twitterspeak, emoticons, and sentences glued together by Web site links?  Maybe our language will change dramatically in the next few decades.

Every significant movement, era, or invention comes with its own ethics, words, and power structures.  The Internet is no different, except that it is massive in size, overwhelmingly significant, and continually evolving.  No doubt our language landscape will be altered by it, even without the sale of any specific words.

How would the bidding process work if a word were to be auctioned?  Look at the millions of dollars that companies pay to own a Web site name that involves a single word of significance, like parenting, wedding, health, or history.

Who would want to own a word and how much would they pay for it?  Would it include all forms or tenses of the word or could one buy dog and not own dogs, or doggy?  Wouldn't the owner of 'love' also want 'loves,' 'loving,' 'loved' and 'lover'?

Society would adapt to the missing words, creating new ones in their place.  Maybe it’ll be as simple as putting a symbol next to the missing word.  “Love” becomes “love*.”  Or some crazy spelling of it will become the norm, such as “luv.”  People are good at circumventing rules, laws, or roadblocks and if a word is missing, rest assured a new one is coming to replace it.

Go ahead and sell words.  I guess the government would sell the words and use the proceeds to fund itself.  But if the government controls the sale of words, doesn’t it control society’s ability to think, write, and talk?  Would the government look to rid itself of words that come to represent criticism, rebellion, or change, thus influencing the populace to act in a controlled fashion?

I love words too much to ever see them sold off but it’s not impossible to see the government taking drastic measures to remain solvent, in control, and significant.  When dictators control free speech it’s as if they own all of the words—and monopolies are never a good idea.

Imagine if this holiday season you could buy a word and give it as a present?  I don’t know how I’d react to getting a giftwrapped word.  Would I then need to reciprocate and buy a word for another?  Will books be written about the psychology behind who is buying these words and what drives them?

Words are invaluable.  Use them wisely, for they are not up for sale.  Don’t discount them or give them away.  Each word means something and belongs to no one person or entity.  They are the most valuable free thing in the world—next to oxygen and water.

But if I were to own a word, what would it be?  It’d have to be a word no one would miss or hardly uses because I would not want to be responsible for murdering a word and causing its virtual extinction.

The dictionary is huge and would take well over five years for you to read it at the rate of one page per day but if one word were to suddenly be off-limits, imagine how different our expression and understanding of the world would be.

I sure am glad words are not for sale.  They are priceless.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, Media Connect, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2013

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