You know the old metaphor: words have power. Just how much power, and what could you do with it? Or do words really have any power at all, if their meaning depends entirely on context, usage, and our fumbling attempts to define them?
Have a trailer.
That’s the unspoken context when the Doctor takes Peri to a conference celebrating the creation of the Lexicon, an AI successor to the Oxford English Dictionary (never mentioned, but I think that’s what is being spoofed). The untimely death of the Lexicon’s creator, the Doctor’s old friend Professor Osefa de Palabra Hftzbrn, proves to be a lacuna with malice aforeword. There’s mischief afoot. Someone or some word is unraveling the connections between sounds and meaning. The consequences could be far worse than an army of internet trolls vandalising (vandalizing?) Wikipedia.
“Circumlocute this!” — The Doctor
Colin Baker is absolutely in his element, taking full advantage of the script’s verbal gymnastics. He rolls in rhetoric like a metaphorical cat in catnip. Nicola Bryant, the smart lady who wrote a 200-page essay on Peri’s motivations and backstory when she first landed the role, rises to the occasion brilliantly as well. The voices of Professor Osefa and her assistant, Book, are also a joy to listen to. Other secondary characters are less well-defined, but they all help carry us through an unusually dense yet delightful story.
As you can tell from my summary, this audio ditches action adventure for clever ideas and animated discussions of the nature of language. There’s a lot of wordplay just for the fun of it, but also, on a second listen, you’ll hear many lines with double meanings, as if to counterbalance the erosion of meaning. Fascinating. It’s a tour de force.
However, that kind of thing may not be to everyone’s taste. I love it, but then I spent two years trying and failing to write a thesis on “non-semantic uses of language,” so I feel a certain sympathy for Osefa. But it’s not just me. I’ve heard from several other fans who love …Ish as much as I do. After all, one of the best ways to hook one’s audience is to present something they have to figure out, giving them an opportunity to feel smart.
I had a little trouble understanding a few scenes in …Ish until I replayed them. In case you’re still puzzling over it, let me do my best to elucidate. I warn you, I’m still a bit muddled over the exact circumstances of Osefa’s death, so your interpretation may be better than mine!
There’s many Earth mythologies that begin, “In the beginning was the Word.” They point to the power of names and language to evoke images and meaning in our minds, and suggest that a divine creator was able to do the same thing and go a step further, naming things into being in the real world. “Define” comes from the Latin word for “assign a limit, boundary,” like planting boundary markers around a field to stake out the space it occupies and make it a field instead of an unarticulated part of the landscape. In other words, definition gives structure and form to chaos, not only to speech but to space itself. Many mythologies have elaborate stories about the power of story, song and writing to shape reality.
The power of words to create and structure reality is a lovely concept, but it’s all very poetic and mystical and transcendental. Where’s the proof? Modern theories of semiotics counter that words are just arbitrary strings of sounds or signs to which we ascribe meanings. In, fact no word means anything (or has any power) by itself: its meaning depends on context and the other words we use to define it.
That’s the theory Professor Osefa was grappling with. With Book’s help, she was cataloguing context, finding the most accurate definitions possible. But she longed to find a Word that transcended human definitions of language. Unfortunately, the Word collected by Book was more infernal than divine. Faced with a Word (or at least a word-fragment) that really did have power, the power to dissociate words from their meanings,* Osefa was overwhelmed by the futility of her life’s work. When it turned her very words to gibberish, she lost the meaning of life.
Book kept returning to the moment of his friend’s suicide, trying to put her last words in context and find meaning in meaningless death. But he was the unwitting agent of her destruction.
Warren, in contrast to Book, was originally designed to disrupt and render meaningless all rival lexicons, so that Osefa’s Lexicon would beat the rest. Unfortunately, he escaped his initial definition and began trying to disrupt all lexicons, including Book, and render meaningless all language. Not that he realised what he was doing; clarity came only when Osefa’s hologlyph told him what he actually meant. At which point he decided to unleash the ish and destroy the universe, in defiance of the ish’s own wish to be reunited with the Word.
In some ways, the concept of the ish is almost the antithesis of the usual myth about the power of names. It’s a destroyer of meaning. There’s a quick explanation embedded in the text of this audio, but it’s easy to miss. The Doctor points out that while short words have many meanings, the longer a word gets, the fewer definitions and more precise meanings it has. But if one carries that process to infinity, one would reach a stage where an infinitely long word had no meanings or even negative meanings, drawing meaning to itself like a verbal black hole. (A metaphorical conceit, but an evocative one.) Ish is not an infinitely long word, and in fact it’s a very short word that has lots of meanings, but it was a suffix to that infinitely long word, and it partakes of some of the same power to devour words.