The Payoff of Finding the “Just So” Word

gufferIn the normal course of world-building, we writers often come up with cool cultures and institutions and then cast about, looking for the perfect word or name to describe them. But sometimes, things work the other way around, and this is the short history of one of those times.

Since beginning my current project (Brotherhood of Delinquents) several months ago, there has been one word that has eluded me, time and again. It’s a simple enough concept, that could happen to anyone at any time and in any world. But surprisingly, we don’t seem to have a word for it in English. Imagine that you have received a mysterious invitation to an undisclosed event by a person or persons as yet unknown. What do you call her?

If you only needed to refer to her once, you could call her “the inviter” or “the host,” but what if the search for her was the premise of the entire book, and would permeate every conversation from page 1 to 300? Can you feel the awkwardness of that? “The inviter said we should meet here at noon.” “Where do you think the inviter has gone?” “Not much of an inviter, is she?”

And while the word “host” is not as awkward, it is extremely misleading. We don’t know what the event is, nor even if the “host” is going to be there. What if you’re being invited to a place where you’re to be murdered? Would “host” still be your go-to choice of nouns? Unfortunately, “host” connotes a degree of safety or social obligation that simply isn’t inherent to the situation. The word “host” leaches the mystery out of it all.

So for months I’ve been pondering this, using the word INVITER wherever the word was needed, and sooner or later, the right word would present itself, and I’d just go back and drop it in. Easy, peasy, right?

Well, as I said, that was months ago, and I’m still searching. Or rather, I was until last night. I’d even gone so far as to present the dilemma to my writer friends on Google+, but after several days of thrashing it around, nobody could suggest any better words than the ones I’d already tried and rejected. And in fact, a number of them urged me to get over my pickiness and just use one of the less palatable words. Practical advice, perhaps, but that just isn’t me. Names matter. The words we use to signify things carry power and nuance, and settling for the wrong word is a sin that burns in my soul without hope of quelling. I had to find a better solution. And so I did.

Yesterday, after the umpteenth return to this topic, with still no better ideas to show for my efforts, I decided to take a different tack, and accept the fact that there is no word in English for what I need. Instead, I decided to just pretend the word does exist, and use that. So what would that word sound like if it existed? I want a word that feels a bit like a trickster, or possibly like a thug. Maybe trustworthy, maybe not. Mysterious, yet common sounding. A word like… guffer. Yeah, that feels about right. “The guffer said we should meet here at noon.” “Where do you think the guffer has gone?” “Not much of a guffer, is she?”

But of course, I can’t just start using a word like that and expect everyone to pick up on my meaning. Especially not if I want it to have a specific balance of connotations, like the ones I’ve outlined. So I needed to invent a context for the word. Something in the story world that would need the word “guffer,” and provide me a way to explain it, while still staying in the world. What kind of invitation might people get, and often enough for it to require a specific word to convey it? It’s a mysterious, but intriguing sort of situation, isn’t it? A bit like a ritual or a children’s game… Aha! Children’s game.

This is a world before television and the internet. Before board games, card games, dolls, and Hot Wheels. A world before bicycles, Hula Hoops, tea parties, and soap box derbies. A world in which everybody worked, including the children, and in which leisure, when it arrived, was something of a release that entire villages might take part in. My “guffer” is a sort of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, and Tooth Fairy, all rolled into one, but without any religious trappings. Imagine a world in which the harvest is in, the winter stores are set, and a day looms near when everyone in the village might just need a bit of a break. It is in that world, at that time, that my guffer arises.

She might be an older sister, caught between youth and adulthood, looking for a way to indulge her more frivolous inner child one last time, but not wanting to appear childish herself in front of her amused elders. Or he might be a grandfather, too lame to help with the heavy lifting any more, but still young of heart, with a twinkle in his eye and a generous delight at the laughter of children. But whoever he or she might be, the guffer sees an opportunity and begins his plan. He assembles little clues out of leaves or twigs, or bits of yarn. Enough so that he can plant one clue in the boot or apron of every boy and girl in town. And then, on the night before the guffer’s game begins, he does exactly that. When the children arise, they find their clues, and the chase is on. The younger children scream across the village, looking high and low, in barns, in watering troughs, behind sheds – anywhere that seems a likely spot for a grown-up to hide – while the older ones who have played this game before, ponder their clues more carefully and try to outsmart their fellows.

Eventually, one child or another is victorious, and the guffer is discovered in his hiding place. But the event does not end there, because the guffer has planned a day full of activities. Perhaps a hike to the Old Ghost Canyon, or a berry-picking excursion, to be followed by a fish-tickling contest out at Widower Harker’s best trout stream. If the guffer has done his job, it’s always something special, some activity, and location, outside the normal reach of the children in his care for the day. It’s the kind of event that every child yearns for, and that every adult thrills to provide, when the time is right for such indulgences. It’s the kind of event that builds communities. The kind of event that makes the community who practice it seem real, and right. The kind of community we all want to have lived in.

So, with that backstory to work from, there can be no other word for the person who summons the three young men of my story, one cold and rainy spring night. They each awake the next morning to find his strange pile of clues awaiting them, summoning them on some dark and mysterious adventure. They may be nearly grown now, and too serious for the allure of a simple childhood game. No, this is no game, and they are not toddlers being distracted by a friendly uncle. But whatever it is, they at least know what to call the person who is behind it all.

He is the guffer. And no other word will do.

The end of a bad day
Boys will be boys

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.