Becoming a Word [Guest Column]

Becoming a Word
by iam:saram

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As a reader, writer, and outspoken speaker, I have a lot of respect for words. The right words are worth a lot in life. People may say that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” but the true power lies in the words themselves. Written and spoken language is truly an amazing, indispensable thing. Where would we be without words? Words can inform, hurt, persuade, pacify, and document. Words can start and stop a war. Words are supposed to be protected in the United States, but some people want to censor and silence the words they don’t like. Putting something into words can give it power, or take power away from it. Words can be beautiful to look at, and beautiful to hear spoken. They can also be offensive or disgusting. One word may have many meanings or connotations. I believe that words are power.

However, we frequently take words for granted, especially the simple ones we use all the time — the conjunctions and pronouns and articles. We say them and write them every day, without thinking twice about it. Without them, language would be completely different!

When I heard about Shelley Jackson’s Skin project, I was intrigued. Here was an author combining concept art and experimental literature. Ms. Jackson’s project would put each word of her new short story on an individual. By tattooing the appointed word onto the body, each person would “become” that word. Each word in this story is equally important and identically recorded. The book will have one edition, a “first printing,” so to speak, on the flesh of thousands of people. It could be the largest single volume of literature ever published, easily weighing a few tons!

I contacted Ms. Jackson about the project, expressing my interest based on my literary background and love of words. I’ll admit it — I’m the kind of girl that likes to page through the dictionary from time to time. I’m a voracious reader, and my college degree is in English Language and Literature. I’m a fan of literacy, correct spelling, proper punctuation, and good grammar. I appreciate a big vocabulary. I immediately heard back, and I was in. I received a waiver to sign and return (acknowledging the risks of participation and the rules of the project). I sent it back and anxiously awaited the arrival of my word.


Writer Shelley Jackson invites participants in a new work entitled “Skin.” Each participant must agree to have one word of the story tattooed upon his or her body. The text will be published nowhere else, and the author will not permit it to be summarized, quoted, described, set to music, or adapted for film, theater, television or any other medium. The full text will be known only to participants, who may, but need not choose to establish communication with one another.

Participants will be known as “words.” Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

Readers interested in becoming words should visit Shelley Jackson’s website at and visit the “SKIN: A MORTAL WORK OF ART” subpage. There are also additional writings on the page if you’d like to see what she’s all about first. As of this writing there are still words available.


I spent a lot of time considering what words I might get, and what words I would like. The text of the story is top secret, so I had no idea what words would be available. I knew that some words might have punctuation attached, and some could be offensive or objectionable. The rules for the project explain that a participant can reject his or her assigned word, but they cannot apply for another. You accept the first word, or you don’t participate. I was a little nervous — what if my word was bad? I really wanted to be part of the project, but not at the cost of a tattoo I didn’t really want. It was a long two weeks before I got my word.

I had decided that the best odds were on an immensely common word, like “a” or “you” or “the.” These simple words are the most commonly used in the English language (just as their counterparts are common in other languages). These words are elegant but overlooked. They are the backbone of every famous book, story, or speech. My inner geek was rather excited by the idea of getting one of these. On the other hand, I supposed I could get something random, like “oven” or “together” or “agronomy.” Since I don’t know what’s in the story, I could imagine any number of words that could turn up!

The envelope arrived at long last. I wished one last time for a truly great word, and opened it. It was as I had expected — I received “the.” I assume that many people got a “the,” or an equally common word. The story probably contains hundreds of these words. We could form a “the” club!

When I mentioned this to other people, I got very mixed reactions. Some people were interested, most were surprised, and a good number had some misgivings about getting a tattoo of the word “the.” I explained, as best I could, my rationale behind participating and my interest in this particular word. I like “the.” It’s small, short, and even a beginning reader knows what it is. It’s taken for granted and entirely essential. I think it’s a nice-looking word, too.

The project rules state that the word must be tattooed in a “book font,” so I chose a thick version of Footlight MT Light. I looked at dozens of potential fonts, but this one really appealed to me. I printed out several different sizes and toyed around with placement. Behind an ear? Inside my lip? On my back? I knew that the tattoo would be small, but it doesn’t exactly match anything I have so far. I don’t want to limit my future tattoo plans with one little “the.” I eventually chose a spot between two other tattoos and my scarification, on my left side. There was a little blank space that just called to me, the perfect spot for the tattoo.

I visited my friend Paul Keplinger at Curious Tattoo in College Park, Maryland, because I knew he’d do a good job (and I love to spend time with him). Paul does quick, solid blackwork — he did some scrollwork down my ribs and it looks great. I really think that just about anyone could pull off these little letters, but Paul seemed like the obvious choice. After explaining the project and the word to Paul (and everyone else in the shop), things were finally coming together. At three small letters, this is the quickest, smallest, and most simple tattoo I have ever gotten. Paul did it with a tiny little liner, and it was done in no time at all. The spot was a little sensitive, and the small liner felt very sharp, but it was through before I could even really start to feel much pain. One spot is a little thick, to compensate for where Paul made me laugh (goddammit), but I don’t think it’s very noticeable to anyone but myself. I think it looks great.

So now I am “the.” I am a definite article, derived from Old English. I may be small and simple, but you need me. You use me all the time. I give you power, and you give me power. I have become a word.


Article by iam:saram. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published online October 10th, 2003 by LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.

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