The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis 1920 1280 Kate Tooley

On my phone I play a word game. So many words, words that I spell before I recognize them, words becoming more and more unfamiliar with every squeal of the 3 train. Sometimes there are even words that have to be made up. I can’t unhear Emmy’s voice over the phone, freaked out like it’s been for a month, breath coming fast enough I’m worried she’s going to pass out before I get to her. I make word after word. Slang isn’t usually on the board, but I do get extra points in the cookie jar for “toke” and sometimes for words in Latin. But in this game, rape is not a word. No matter how many times I connect the letters, slow or fast, in straight lines or star shapes, rape is not a word.

Olivia.Hearn @OliveOverIt  •  Mar 4

Today is the three-year anniversary of the time my uncle told me that it’s a woman’s responsibility to practice martial arts and carry a gun. I asked him about little girls whose bodies couldn’t take the recoil. He hasn’t spoken to me since.

The subway spits me up a block from Emmy’s house, and wonder why I seem to be getting worse at sitting vigil beside terrified bodies, of staying still enough to hold open a space for them, the way other friends have for me. Shouldn’t practice make perfect? Shouldn’t anger burn itself out, and if it hasn’t, what part of me is it feeding on now? In the elevator I check my body for anger-eaten gaps which I imagine look like brown recluse bites. I can’t see them, but I’m pretty sure I can feel something hollowing out a space beneath my sternum. When the FedEx guy gets on at the tenth floor, I start to make words again, stoop, stop, post — I’m afraid if he sees my eyes, he’ll recognize how I’m turning feral, that he must have an instinct for bad dogs by now.

Olivia.Hearn @OliveOverIt  •  Sep 21

I have woken up so many mornings this year to a headline questioning whether my body is a vessel or a person that I consider tattooing “you break it, you buy it” on the strip of skin right below my belly button. Who knows an artist?

She’s on the 22nd floor, and I see him pulling back from her door as the elevator door opens, trying to do the “nice guy” pose that fools everybody’s’ moms: a casual lean, hand in the side pocket, hair drooping over one eye. It seems impossible that he’s here, even though I’m here because he’s here, where he’s not supposed to be. I’m already palming mace in a sparkly purple rubber holder. It reminds of the trendy little Bed Bath and Beyond hand sanitizers we all strapped to our backpacks in High School. I try to come up with a joke about “man sanitizer” and fail spectacularly. The first time Emmy called to say he wouldn’t stop knocking, I dug it out of the junk drawer.

Olivia.Hearn @OliveOverIt  •  Dec 27

Dear twitterverse, please let me describe my Xmas stocking: bedazzled tweezers, nail polish I’ll never wear, a mini bottle of something alcoholic and pink called “Kinky”, and pepper spray. I’ll let you sit with that.

I raise the spray and an eyebrow, try to do them simultaneously, the way Jennifer Garner would have in Alias. I don’t have to say anything at this point; he downshifts quickly from predator to prey. He was slippery when he was her boyfriend, and he’s slippery now, oozing down the fire stairs, refusing eye contact, like he refused responsibility. I think about going after him, about shoving him down the slick concrete steps. Not because I want him dead, but because I indulge for maybe two seconds in the idea of telling a court about exactly what he’d done, the way Emmy never got a chance to.

Her doormat says, “Definitely not a Trap Door,” and I remember buying it with her when having her own studio apartment with no roommates still felt like a victory. I slide down to sit on the dirty bristles, a guard dog, texting her that I am here, that he is gone. My fingers tap open the game and I settle in because he’s like a rat the way he waits for darkness. We’ve been doing this dance for months now, and if I am inside, he’ll knock harder, louder. Once when I opened her door to tell him to go away, he shoved past me and I had to fake call 911 to get rid of him. “Stop” is definitely a word in the game, but I guess he’s playing a special White Man TM edition. Now I just hang out on the doormat until she feels safe again.

I hear Emmy thump down just inside, her head tapping back against the hollow metal door — our bodies only two inches apart, back-to-back. She plays The Cure on a portable speaker and I keep making words. “Cuss words” turn red and refuse me points, but they’re all I’m seeing in the letter jumble. Here, in this two by four-inch screen, art is mirroring life so hard it’s comedy. I wonder which programmer, safe in anonymity, has decided that our violations don’t exist – that we’re not even allowed to swear about them.

EXCLUSIVE: BACKSTORY for ‘The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’

As writers, we talk constantly about the power of words, but less about the often-catastrophic effects of lacking words for something or of having the meaning of words that should belong to us — words of identity and experience — taken and twisted. “It’s not rape if….” “That’s not homophobic/racist because….” I grew up in the generation for whom “that’s so gay” was the go to, and the word “lesbian” sat in the cultural thesaurus next to “angry” and “manhater.”

I wrote the two-hundred-word heart of this story in a workshop with Marie-Helene Bertino — it was a space where I learned to have more curiosity about my writing and the courage to get under my own skin and “say the thing.” The word search Olivia plays is a real game and what sparked the idea, but I realized the “story” was the everyday, almost humdrum cocktail of love and rage and exhaustion so many of us experience simply by trying to exist, and trying to protect those we care about, in a world that is constantly committing acts of both physical and linguistic violence against us. It’s also a love letter to the friends who have and continue to hold me up.

— Kate Tooley

Header photograph © Galduryndari D.

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1 Comment
  • Jeanne [she/her] Blum Lesinski 03/02/2023 at 1:32 pm

    Well done on all levels. Going deep is important to those of use who haven’t yet found the courage to get to those necessary words.

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