The Power of Words

What is the true power of words? They string together our stories and can be exhibited in the form of names to give us identities. The innumerable diction of the human languages speaks volumes to our complexity as a species. In novels such as “Zulus” by Percival Everett and “Zone One” by Colson Whitehead, we see this deep love and appreciation for language and words as both authors use them to assert their points pertaining to the larger themes within their writing.

In Everett’s “Zulus”, he masterfully crafts phrases and plays on words to deliver the theme of the absurdities and hypocritical nature of his post-apocalyptic world, and thus mankind. Alice Achitophel’s drive to bring and support life to an already barren world is both ironic and hopeful in the melancholiest sense. Her hopeful character juxtaposed by her lover, Kevin Peters who is deeply cynical and hopeless when it comes to the future. To express these absurdities Everett often misspelled words: “…realx and let things happen as they would…” (Everett 153). Why does he choose to do this? Reading and rereading the novel it becomes clear that by misspelling the words of our known language, Everett is creating modifications of his own to change the language and thus give the word an entirely different portrayal. By creating his own spin on such a common word “relax”, he is showing us how we can and are constantly evolving as humans, whether physically or linguistically. Delving deeper into this, we can analyze Everett’s choice to write “Zulus” from A-Z, a purposeful narration as Alice Achitophel is the one retelling her story within the book, her only line of sight being the alphabet with her ever-conscious mind even after human extinction. After the world ends, it is ironic that Alice is still able to evolve, changing the story slowly word by word, phrase by phrase; it is these small misspelled words that show this gradual evolution of both the novel and Alice Achitophel herself, as they are one and the same. 

Everett additionally uses several Latin phrases to display his themes, most notably: “And the words, scrawled and printed. GIKICKIGWEJUG MUTATO NOMINE” (Everett 212). “Mutato nomine” is a part of the Latin phrase “mutato nomine de te fabula narratur” which translates to with the name changed, the story applies to you. A flexible phrase as it can be applied to several elements within both “Zulus” and “Zone One”.  In “Zulus”, Alice Achitophel is urged to obtain a fake identity in order to work with Geraldine Rigg in the hospital and help the supposed “rebels”. Alice Achitophel takes on the name of a deceased infant, Esther: “We find a baby that died, get the name and go to the Bureau of Records… They’ll know she’s dead. No one will know…Births and deaths are not cross-referenced. And who would have time to care anyway?” (Everett 171). This lack of acknowledgment and care of death record keeping can be compared to the dehumanization of the skels in Whitehead’s “Zone One”. The skels were not kept record of and no one felt that it was even important enough to bother. In Everett’s post-apocalyptic world, human life is seen to have a deadline, as there are no children left to be born and those who are left on the barren-earth are there simply just to die. The skels similarly have no future, no life to look forward to, as they are aimless and purposeless just as the characters are in “Zulus”. A fact that Alice Achitophel comes head to head with when her and Kevin Peters decided to release the chemical agent. This is why it is so deeply ironic that Alice goes through such measures to change her identity and thus life to try and make a world long past saving, a better place.

Bridging the Latin phrase to Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” we can take a closer look at the naming of the novel’s main character “Mark Spitz”. Mark Spitz is the name of an Olympic swimmer from the 1970s, yet Whitehead’s main character in a post-apocalyptic world is purposely given this name. This “renaming” of individuals (both Alice and Mark) demonstrates the complexity of a name and the weight that it bears on our own identities. Just as the words in our languages are innumerable so are the individuals that these words pertain too. This concept of being “innumerable” is applied in Whitehead’s diction throughout his novel. Whiteheads vocabulary is so ridiculously expansive that you find yourself holding open a dictionary throughout your entire experience reading the novel just to understand the plot. Whitehead is so meticulous with his complicated word choice that he even utilizes words such as “defenestration” which literally means “the act of throwing something or someone out of a window”. It is with this absurd use of language that Whitehead makes his point within the novel not to forget the stories of the skels and thus those who are often disregarded. By using these uncommon words, Whiteheads brings them to the spotlight making the point that all words and thus individuals deserve to be acknowledged and known, and maybe even understood. Tying this back to “Zulus” we can compare Everett’s sarcastic use of language with Whitehead’s indirect complexity and purpose to his novel’s diction.

Both Percival Everett and Colson Whitehead expertly craft their prose to display deep and insightful themes that leave you questioning several aspects about society. It is with their love for language and cleverness that the reader is able to play a game of “catch” as they read their works, grasping at each clue and bread crumb that is left to analyze the bigger picture. Both “Zulus” andZone One” take place in post-apocalyptic settings as to invoke that things need to change in order to prevent the realities that these characters are living through. It is with carefully weaved language that the reader is able to digest and truly learn from the stories told by these authors; thus, the true power of words.

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