Feb 18, 2022

The Wordless Place

This week, we turn to an expert who tromps the wilds of wordlessness. Lulu’s young son. In this essay, originally published for The Paris Review under the title “The Eleventh Word,” Lulu explores what is lost with the gaining of language. And how, in a very odd way, a fear of confusion and the unknown may begin with the advent of words. The Radiolab sound team brings this piece to life with original music, and at one point the words melt right out of the air.

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LULU MILLER: the Sky was a slate of indigo. We were sitting in the bath, my year and a half old son and I.

LULU: My wife popped her head in the door…

LULU: Hey, it’s Radiolab. This is Lulu Miller. Latif is actually out this week, but I do have another friend with me.


LULU: Soren Wheeler, executive editor of Radiolab. Man behind the scenes, often pushing us towards things we do or…

SOREN: Or don’t want to do.

LULU: Don’t wanna do.

SOREN: Yeah.

LULU: And he is here today with a somewhat questionable editorial recommendation.

SOREN: It’s not questionable at all, you’re just being hum– I don’t know, humble or something. Because what I want to do – well let me just say that in addition to being a great radio reporter and storyteller, you are also an amazing writer. And I’ve always wanted to find a way to share that on the show. So I’ve been angling for a while now, you know this, to get you to read one of your essays on the air. And there’s one essay in particular, it’s called “The Eleventh Word” and you, what, you wrote this about a year ago? Or so? Year and a half ago?

LULU: Yeah, like year and a half. Yeah.

SOREN: It was actually recently picked for a Best American Essays Honor. And I also think it speaks to the sort of chaos that’s been surrounding us, all of us, of late. But in a really unique and interesting way. So I think it’s actually a pretty good editorial choice and I think everybody’s going to enjoy it.

LULU: Well, I hope so. Alright.

SOREN: Do you wanna like, is there any set up? Do you wanna give us some set up and…?

LULU: Yeah, quick set up. So I’m gonna jump into it a little bit. I’m gonna just fast forward into it a little bit. All you really need to know is that I have mega baggage with the word “fish,” basically, because according to science, it is an inaccurate term. Many of the creatures we consider fish are more closely related to us. But I think my real baggage is with this fish as an example of this thing we do all the time, which is to group things together that don’t belong under one word, to preserve a sense of order, or comfort, or control, or whatever. I think it can be a dangerous impulse to believe in our categories. Anyways, so I’ve kinda been ranting and raving for the last many years about how you need to approach the world with more doubt and it all boils down to the evils and dangers of the word “fish.” and then about a year and a half ago, my kid said the word “fish” for the first time. And so that’s what this essay is about. It’s about that moment and what happens after, so we’re gonna just jump right back on in. In the bath, Wheels, you can leave.

SOREN: I’m not gonna be in the bath, but I’m gonna listen.

LULU: And a quick parental disclaimer. There is a brief mention of a part of the body involved in sex and two quick swear words. Nothing, you know, it’s pretty tame. But consider yourself warned. So here we go.

LULU: We’re sitting in the bath. My year and a half old son and I. My wife popped her head in the door. My son looked at her, giving her a smile I will never get. And then pointed to the painting of a magenta fish on the wall. “Sheesh,” he said. It was, I’m pretty sure, his 11th word. He had dog, and ball, and duck, and bubble, and momma. And mysteriously, in our lesbian household, “dadda”, and “nana” for banana, and “vroom vroom” for car, and hah hah for hot. And the root for so many of our evils: “What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” And then, there it was: “Fish.” It should have been a terrifying moment for me. I of all people should have felt that hot burst of fricative air as a puncturing of his innocence. “Sheesh.” His fall from grace in real time. His ejection from a Garden of Eden I had just spent a decade trying to hack a path back into. I should have pressed my palm to his lips and squeezed tight so that no more words would come out. Instead, I tested him. I pulled up a photograph of a goldfish on my phone. “Sheesh!” A salmon. “Sheesh!” Nemo. “Sheesh!” “Yes!” I squealed in the highest octave I could reach, cementing the lie with my glee.

LULU: Over the next few weeks, he revealed to me that fish were everywhere in the city of Chicago. Fish along the mosaicked wall of the pedestrian underpass beneath Lakeshore Drive, now barricaded with yellow tape to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Fish inside the library books we could no longer return. Fish in the windows of the shuttered nursery school on Clark. “Sheesh!” He would point his little scepter finger, stunning the former confusion into mastery. Under his rule, a snake was also a fish. A turtle, a fish. And one morning, as we opened the window to let an April breeze roll through the apartment, the potted palm tree became a fish, her fins suddenly paddling the air. As our world was closing in, his seemed to be exploding. The word “fish” turned out to be a sacred key for him, one that granted him the entire animal kingdom. Suddenly, no creature was unknown to him. If a dog walked by, it was “dog.” If we spotted a bunny, it was also a dog. The cows, bears, zebras, kangaroos, giraffes, and elephants stuffed inside our childrens’ books, all dogs. As for birds, the robin on our porch, the cardinal on the bush, the pigeons flying with a new elegance across the quieted sky, all “duck.” Everything else was “fish.” It was Aristotle’s same scientific classification of animals. Land, sea, or air, with different labels on their jars. One morning, he called an ant a dog. His chest began to puff just a little bit. Mine did too. I did not yet sense the threat.

LULU: In late April, we learned of one of the few nature preserves stilled recklessly open and we recklessly plunged in. We walked through archways of naked underbrush, brambles holding in their buds. Carpets of moss stealing the show. “Dirt,” our son said. “Yeah! Dirt!” We said, pointing to the infinitely complex swirl of mineral, mycological, entomological, and electrical matter beneath our feet. That very same day came “wawa” for the small creek at the end of the hike, and later, for rain, and baths, and thirst. Next was “stick.” Yellow bloomed for one day and then left us. The tiny, black dogs that crawled along the cracks in our porch became “bug,” and then “ant.” And we cheered with every word. Two women waiting upon the doorstep of language, giddy to welcome him in.

LULU: And then five weeks after he first said the word “fish,” it happened. We shouldn’t have gone to see my in-laws, but they’re young. Not even 60. They don’t play tennis, but they could. We wore our masks and sat at the other end of the long rectangular table. We put our son to bed in their guestroom. Around 10 p.m., we were all still up, still chatting, when our son started screaming. Not crying, screaming. It was a sound we’d never heard. My wife went up, but after a few minutes, the volume had not lowered. I leaped up the carpeted stairs, worried he was sick, worried he had a fever, worried he had...but my wife shook her head puzzled.

LULU: “He isn’t hot,” she whispered. I took him into my arms, sure I could settle him. But he recoiled. He looked up at me with no recognition. We tried everything. Rocking him, showing him a book, the one with the penguins who like each other so much. We tried warmed milk. Nothing. Finally, my wife took him over to a framed photograph of Coptic tapestries.

LULU: Various trees birthing goat-like creatures with curling horns, and snail-like creatures with spiraling shells, and maybe snakes, and definitely vines, all coiling into one another in such a hallucinatory way that it probably would have caused me to have a psychotic break if I had been as disoriented as my son. My wife got him up close to the glass and started whispering the names of what she thought she saw. “Goat,” she said, tapping the glass. “Flower, snail, duck.” Thud, thud, thud. And slowly, through shaking inhalations, he settled enough for us to pack up and drive home.

LULU: Once upon a time, there was a German psychologist whose name I am forgetting, which will itself become relevant in just a moment, who argued that when you don’t name a thing, it stays more active in your mind. Specifically, he found that you have better recall for the details of an unsolved task, an unfinished puzzle, an unnamed psychological phenomenon, than a solved or labeled thing. “Loose ends prevail,” could have been the name of his law, but it was, I’m checking my notes, “the Zeigarnik.” Zeigarnik. The Zeigarnik effect. The man’s name was Zeigarnik and she was a woman, not a man, and she was Russian, not German. But still, it has stayed with me, this idea with a hard-to-remember name, about how unnamed ideas are easier to remember. This rabid, little law that suggests that unlabeled things gnaw and tug at you with more vigor. Their parts and powers somehow more alive when they’re left to roam wild outside the confines of our words. With the name comes a kind of dormancy. The name in this metaphor is a trap. The lid on the jar that extinguishes the firefly.

LULU: The next morning, our son was fine. My wife and I weren’t. “What was that?” we said to each other, shaking our heads over coffee prep and neglected dishes, glancing back at him, merry in his highchair.

LULU: My wife went into work that morning at the hospital where she is a psychologist to kids who have come into contact with chaos’ whims: amputations, and paralyses, and premature births. She took her supervisor aside and asked if she had any thought on the night terror like the one we’d seen. Her supervisor told her not to worry. Said it was a common occurrence around 18 months, a byproduct of all the neurological growth that happens around that time. I pictured a lightning bolt just charging from the growing ion storm of his mind.

LULU: I had done my own half-hearted investigating. Some fruitless googling and a serendipitous phone call with a colleague who mentioned that his toddler had had her first night terror the very same night! We joked that there must have been something in the air. “That’s reassuring,” I heard myself saying, unreassured.

LULU: I left them for five days. My book tour was canceled, I needed nature, I needed something. I drove to West Virginia. I hiked on a ridge trail and saw a lady slipper orchid, whose name I only learned weeks after I saw her. This swell vagina on a pedestal that lives on mountaintops. She was covered in dewdrops. She had pastel veins. I thought I was hallucinating. I missed my wife. I listened to Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity on tape as I hiked. He told me that the root of all our problems is the desire to hold onto anything. Life is inherently flowing and our grasp to possess it makes us sick. I nodded and tried desperately to capture each beautiful thing I saw. I took a picture of the mist, of a toad, of a cairn. I took a timelapse of a sunset, an audio recording of a grouse bleating for her chicks. Six photos of the lady slipper orchid. I ripped up a tiny bouquet of meadow flowers, purple, yellow, and white, and stuffed them in an envelope to mail home.

LULU: What I find when I get home, after a short break.

LULU: I returned home to new words. “Apple” and “help.” To the killing of George Floyd. To a city-wide curfew. I awoke one night to my wife saying, “Lulu, out, now.” She beelined down the hall to get our son. Our bathroom window was sunset orange with fire outside. “This is a communication,” I thought, as I wondered what to take. I chose our laptops and the scrapbook I’ve been making of my son’s life. His inky footprints, his finger paints, the growing list of his words. The garage one plot over from us was razed. It was declared arson. No one was hurt. My son’s eyes gleamed at the firetrucks, five of them, the best night of his life. I thought about everything he didn’t yet know. I wondered how on earth we could raise him to be a good white man. To not think of himself as sitting on top of the hierarchy society continues to maintain for him. In June, he began saying the word “up.” He began rejecting his beloved blueberries, throwing them on the floor, and I would – what would I do? Pick them up. In July, we visited our sperm donor, a close friend who we’ve decided to call “uncle.” Our son’s face is his face but he has no word for him yet. His new word that month was “bus.”

LULU: In August, a tornado pushed through Chicago. Flying saucers of roots rose from the cement as the tree trunks fell. I sat in the bath with my son. The thunder was so loud, it shook the car alarms awake. My son looked at me with “what the fuck” eyes. “Thunder,” I said. “Hummer?” he said. And I said, “Yeah. Hummer.”

LULU: In September, the wind rolled through bearing cicadas and a chill. He turned two. His “hot” grew its “t,” his “banana” its “b.” He spoke his name out loud for the very first time. And “no,” and “corona.” And now it is October. The mysterious, white creature I hung from the porch, my son quickly learned to call “skeleta.” He calls the giant orange orb sitting below it “apple,” and tries in vain to bite into it. Over the ridge of this month lies a greater unknown than we’ve seen in a while. The presidential election. How will the votes get counted? And will the votes get counted? And if the president loses, will he accept the loss? Will the social order hold and wouldn’t that actually be the worst fate of all? If it did?

LULU: I am alone again. My wife and son are both asleep. I slip out onto the balcony. I can’t see the stars between the breaks in the clouds, but I trust that they are there because I’ve been told that they are there. In honor of a more expansive world, in paving the path to progress through doubt, I let myself consider for a moment that there are no stars. I try to slip the word “star” off the stars. Or to unscrew it, leaving just the socket somewhere above me. I try to take down the word above and consider that the stars might be below or inside me. I roll my eyes at myself while trying not to all the same.

LULU: Suddenly, the words of this essay melt into paint or maybe to felt. To wooden waves of green and blue. The colors are muted but deep. The fish curl into the stars, which curl into the wind, which forms a kind of tornado at the center of which you can see is the soul, engulfing the earth reengulfing the soul. There’s a sound of laughter which is rendered as a tiny bouquet of droplets off the tip of Antarctica. The word “Antarctica” is crossed out. The word “Antarctica” was never there. Ice melts from the brass pole around which the globe spins, then freezes, then sublimates.

LULU: I would like to stay here in the wordless place. After all of these years looking closely at words, I’ve come to mistrust them. So often they are used as the sober blades to scale selves away from the group. Its protection, its warmth, its assurances of justice. But even knowing that, something desperate in me still wants to hurl a handful of words out into the air, still believing they can catch and tame a terrible thing.

LULU: That night back in April, when my son screamed out in terror, a logical explanation could be that he had awoken to an unfamiliar room, my in-laws guestroom, and become disoriented and afraid. Yet prior to lockdown, we had dragged that child all over the place. In his short life, he had lived in three different homes, two different states, he had awoken to countless unfamiliar rooms, inside friends’ homes and hotels, remember those? And cars, and bars, and tents. And never before had it frightened him. So what was different about that night? It was the first time he had awoken to an unfamiliar setting after the advent of words. For 569 days before that, he had lain with the unknown each night and it had never bothered or frightened him. Instead, he had curled into her, this hulking, formless shoal of uncertainty and confusion because it was all he knew. It was only with the advent of words, with the illusion that he could name the whole world, every last corner of it, labeled and known, that the unknown became the enemy, became a threat. She’s flexing her wings these days, the unknown. She’s showboating around. She’s waving from the horizon in a coat of flames. She’s lingering on metal surfaces. There’s the same amount of her there’s always been, of course, but she’s making herself felt. Her presence can be seen in the whittling down of our teeth, the spikes in suicide, the surge in demand for therapists.

LULU: Uncertainty, it has been shown, is more painful than certain physical pain. For some reason, the neurologists say, we are wired to fear the unknown. There’s a thumbnail-sized in the soldier in the brain, they explain, who they’ve named the locus coeruleus, who is charged with tracking uncertainty. He’s useful for a bit, when faced with uncertainty, he puts the brain into a fluid state so it can better run through strategies to keep you safe. But when the uncertainty won’t let up, that fluid state starts to wear on the body. Such extended vigilance leads to exhaustion, to a measurable increase in stress. “The strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” declared H.P. Lovecraft, nearly a century earlier. But what if they’re all wrong? What if we are not, in fact, fated to fear the unknown? What if that fear only starts with the advent of words? With the false belief that a named thing is a known thing? Perhaps it is our words that transform the hulking unknown from friend to foe. It is a tidy theory. It allows me to explain away the fear that something’s wrong with my child, that his anguish is unsolvable, unknowable. If I can name it, I can swat that haunting look in his eyes when he longer knew who I was away forever.

LULU: With “fish” came every last creature on earth. The ducks are still “ducks,” but now owls are “huhus.” Both rocks and curbs are “stone.” He’s got “fern,” and “mushroom,” and “umbrella,” and “bus truck.” His chalk is “cock,” and the gay guys next door can’t stop laughing. The flippered mammals of the sea have all sprouted ruffled collars, “dolfish,” he calls them, animating the world with his wrongness, shaking us all temporarily awake.

LULU: A few weeks ago, I sat in the park under a heavy beam of wood that could kill me in an instant, but I trusted it wouldn’t, because I had named that thing “branch.” In that same park, I watched a man, face-twisted, run hard in my direction, but I trusted he would not kill me, was not running from a thing that might kill me, because I named him “jogger.” Behind me, dozens of ten-ton death machines whizzed by that I named “truck.” I named the flat ribbon of asphalt upon which they drove, “road,” and in road I trusted. With each word comes a false sense of assurances that now you know how it will behave. “We have the coronavirus totally under control,” said the president, the day after the first case was discovered in the US. With “fish” came a certainty about the entire animal kingdom. Although maybe I’m wrong. He’s still got no word for cicada. He’s never named a firefly.

LULU: That night in the bath, so many moons ago, the same moon ago, the light gave off its last indigo sparks of day and he spoke his 11th word. I heard it only as a mother. I clapped at all the finned creatures he had just caught in one syllable. I believed that he was drawing closer, each word a stepping stone to walk him nearer, nearer to me. And yet, the truth I knew even then, maybe, is that each word is another brick in the wall being erected between us. An experience named instead of shared.

LULU: I pulled the plug and watched as he watched, delighted, the water drain away. By the time it was gone, it was night. I wish now that I had lingered just a little longer in the warmth of that water, in the waning days of wordlessness, when confusion was still everywhere, when confusion was still nothing to fear.

LULU: Big thanks to Paris Review, where this was originally published. Big thanks to Dylan Kief for the musical magic. Bigger thanks to you, listeners.

LULU: And by the way, if you haven’t checked out the Lab yet, take a peak. It is our way that we’re trying to make supporting the show a little easier. Plus there’s all kinds of cool swag, special virtual events, extra audio gifts. To check it out and maybe sign up to become a supporter, head over to radiolab.org/join. Latif and I will be back next week. See you then.

SPEAKER 1: Radiolab is created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Kief is our director of sound design. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwan, Alex Neason, Sara Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Karen McCusker and Sarah Somback. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger, and Adam Przybyl.

BABY: [unintelligible]

LULU: Okay, last one. Say, “bye bye.”

BABY: Bye bye [unintelligible].

DAVID: Hello, this is David from Berlin. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information at Sloan at www.sloan.org.

JAD ABUMBRAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a science foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.


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