Owning a Word

Word by word, writers build something. Once in a while—not too often if ever, for most of us—a writer will employ a word so well that it becomes his or her property for the indefinite future.

American playwright, performer, feminist, activist Eve Ensler comes to mind. As it happened, Eve was a college classmate—intense, even in those years, still the dark hair, only long then, not bobbed, as is her iconic look today, and no red lipstick either. But she was a writer and activist even then, and you couldn’t miss her fierce intellect.  Best known for her 1996 work The Vagina Monologues, the word “vagina” has been hers for the past fourteen years.

Of course no one much wanted it before she used it, and many avoided it as taboo, which gave her a starting advantage. She took it, mulled it over, worked it, and used it 128 times in her 106 page play. By the time she was done, she had imbued it with so much meaning that a single word has come to represent an entire shift in thinking—politically, sexually, societally, and even economically, given the proceeds she donates worldwide.

Use the v-word today, and tribute must be paid to Eve.

It’s like in the game of Monopoly. If you have acquired something, the property is yours. And until you lose it or give it up, everyone who lands on your turf owes you.

Kudos to Eve who uses the tribute paid for a greater good, as she defines it. Another player would simply keep the money.

The word “player,” by the way, is owned right now by another college classmate, another striking figure in the English department hallways, always a clutch of typed pages in hand. It belongs to Hollywood filmmaker and writer Michael Tolkin, who used it in his 1988 novel The Player, which became a Robert Altman film by the same name.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Eve or Michael expected to own a word for their troubles. They just kept writing in a work-a-day world, which is what writers do.