Stories silly and serious have a way of gathering steam in my mind. Sometimes they travel to a full-throated destination and sometimes they linger in some limbo that finds no period, no the-end.
In the latter category, the notion of a "word burglar" popped into my head this morning and refused to go away until I played with it a bit. It might have been the sound of the two words in tandem or perhaps it was just the idea that some outside force might be on a multi-state crime spree, stealing favored nomenclature.
Eg. ARROWHEAD, Minn. -- Two teenagers were found wandering in a catatonic state early this morning down by the old hemp mill. Police determined that the pair was unhurt, but after careful questioning, realized that the high school juniors had fallen victim to the word burglar, who had stolen their verbal touchstones "awesome" and "like."
"We gave them a cup of coffee and a quick dictionary refresher and sent them on their way," police corporal Dennis Werbel said.
During the questioning, the pair told much the same story that has become common across the Midwest: They remembered running into a pleasant old woman who asked them for directions. They told the woman where to go, but noticed she was staring at them intently as they explained. After she moved away, both noticed a sensation of simultaneous loss and elation that was -- as they were forced to relearn from the dictionary -- "like... awesome!"
Anecdotal evidence of the word burglar began to surface earlier this year. At first, researchers did not connect the incidents to a particular perpetrator but wrote them off as "simple memory lapses" or "brain farts." But when the similarity of the occurrences could no longer be overlooked, when the elderly woman seemed to appear in each story of forgetfulness, they knew they were on the trail of a bona fide word burglar.
The most notable incident occurred in early August at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington when, without explanation, the entire organization found itself temporarily without any recollection of the word "terror." The theft appeared to have occurred on a Tuesday, the same day when DHS gives its public tours. Video surveillance footage on that day show an elderly woman resembling the woman described in Arrowhead.
"For a while there, it was truly terrifying," said DHS human resources secretary Darlene Chafut. "I mean, you knew there was a word you wanted and needed and, well, it just wasn't there any more." As in all other cases of word burgling, DHS was brought back to normal with a quick refresher course in dictionary definitions.
In Riverton, Neb., the Rev. Nigel Grantham reported that he had walked into the Eastwood Baptist Church he ministers to and something seemed to be missing late in July.
"I knew what my job was and I knew I was in the right place to perform that job, but the word "God" would not come. The pews, the altar, the stained glass -- everything was as it had been in the past, but someone had stolen "God.""
Grantham's wife, Viola, restored his sense of environment when he returned home, bewildered, for lunch.
"Without her, I would have been lost," Grantham conceded.
In East Bend, Oklahoma, car mechanic Rick Stiles had a similar experience.
"This woman came in to have her oil changed and the next thing I knew, the word "transmission" had disappeared. She seemed so nice, but she's a crafty bitch."
And in Sympathy Falls, Iowa, motel owner Regis Walters has taken word burgling seriously enough to replace the Gideon Bible with a paperback dictionary in each nightstand drawer.
"I like my customers to leave happy," Walters said.
Researchers say there seems to be no particular malevolence in the thefts.
"But we are concerned that as this woman travels around the country, we may know some of what she has taken but not all. Suppose there is something else, something vital, that has been overlooked," Rachel Simsbury said.
How and why the word burglar seems so determined has not been ascertained. Some speculate that there may be a black market for words in Mozambique or the Seychelles. Others contend it is a mere figment of researchers' imaginations -- linking unlikely events to create the illusion that research is necessary and in need of further funding.
As yet, the suspect described by victims and seen on surveillance footage has not been identified.
"She looks ordinary enough," said security analyst Arthur Hedges. "Maybe in her 50's, nicely dressed, unobtrusive ... sort of your mom or grandmom. The fact that she has appeared in so many word-burgling venues makes her our target ... a person of interest, so to speak.
"But what she does and how she does it ... we don't know. And even if we do catch her, what the hell are we going to charge her with?