The meaning of words

Whisper Falls - Elizabeth Langston

It's the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, and Mark is using the time to earn money at his yard care business and to train for two important mountain bike races.  At the waterfall in the state park near his home, he's attacking an incline at top speed when his tire hits a rock on the path, and he crashes, thankful that the area was carpeted with compost.


From the other side of the falls, Susanna witnesses the accident.  She's curious about the young man because she has never seen such clothes as he is wearing, and has no idea what the contraption is that he fell from.  After a rocky start to their conversation, they finally come to the realization that she is from the 18th century and he is from the 21st.


They each have many questions for the other.




“How many girlfriends have you had?”


“Alexis was my first.”


“How many more girlfriends will you be dating before marriage?”


“I don’t know. Ten. Twenty.”


“Do you pick unwisely so very often?”


He laughed. “I guess so.” The lightness of his tone bewildered me. Choosing one’s husband or wife should be treated with gravity and respect.


“Why did you choose this girlfriend?”


“Alexis picked me.”


“Why did you agree?”


His brow creased in concentration. “At our school, everyone thinks she’s amazing. When she asked me out, I was seriously flattered.”


“I do understand. It is indeed flattering for someone to want you, even if you don’t want them back.” . . . “What makes her amazing?”


“She’s smart. And she’s hot.”


I frowned. “Does hot mean feverish?”


“No, it means pretty.”


“Why does hot mean pretty?”


“I’m not sure.” His face flushed crimson. He brushed at the laces of his shoes. “Can we talk about something else?”






It was most perplexing, the number of words he used that made no sense. “If hot means pretty, does cool mean ugly?”


He laughed. “No, sorry. Cool means very good.” . . .“How long have you been indentured?”


“Since I was ten.”


“That sucks.”


“Sucks?” He had used this word before, almost as if it were a curse.


“Sucks is slang in my world.”




“Yeah. Slang is where you take a word that means one thing and use it to mean something else. Sometimes the opposite.”


“A word can mean something different than what it means?”


“Sure.” A corner of his mouth twitched. “Like when we say something is fine, it probably isn’t fine at all.”


“Can a slang word retain its original meaning?”




“So if I say ‘fine,’ it can mean ‘fine’ or ‘not fine.’”




I shuddered. How difficult that must be— never to trust the meaning of words.  “I should think your conversations become quite treacherous.”