‘Precious Artifact’ is a short story by Philip K. Dick that I read recently in the collection The Golden Man (Methuen, 1981). I won’t get into the story here, or the book, except to lend context to a phrase he coined for it. But if you’re averse to mild spoilers, skip ahead a little.
The phrase is introduced when the protagonist, based on Mars, is preparing to return to Earth, or Terra as it’s called in the story:
Milt Biskle said, “I want you to do something for me. I feel too tired, too—” He gestured. “Or depressed, maybe. Anyhow I’d like you to make arrangements for my gear, including my wug-plant, to be put aboard a transport returning to Terra.”
Milt’s singling out the wug-plant is significant both narratively (for reasons I’ll ignore) and emotionally: he’s attached to it to the point of calling it a pet. Later, on ‘Terra’, he finds it has not prospered in the new climate (‘my wug-plant isn’t thriving’), and soon afterwards ‘he found his Martian wug-plant dead’.
But wug-plant is most significant linguistically. Those of you with a background or interest in linguistics will know why, but for the benefit of other readers I’ll explain briefly.
In 1958 Jean Berko (later Jean Berko Gleason), a psycholinguist researching language acquisition in children, invented an imaginary bird-like creature called a wug, and other nonsense words, to find out more about children’s understanding of grammar. You can see footage of the test here and here.*
The ‘wug test’ proved very influential in linguistic research, and the creature itself has become iconic in the field. Gretchen McCulloch calls the wug an ‘unofficial mascot for linguistics’, and her wugs-tagged posts on All Things Linguistic testify to this. Jean Berko Gleason’s own website has a Wug shop and a photo of her with a large green wug.
For my own contribution to wugnalia I decided to draw a wug-plant – though the result probably isn’t what Philip K. Dick had in mind. At first I pictured a plant with wugs in place of leaves, but that wasn’t nice for the wugs. Then I thought of a wug with leaves, rather like the mutants in Ween’s ‘Transdermal Celebration’ video. But that would be more a plant-wug than a wug-plant.
So I put a wug and a plant together without blending them, to make a ‘wug-plant’ in the ‘butterfly bush‘ sense:
This is the first drawing I’ve put on Sentence first, I think. Forgive its crudeness; it was done quickly. (Long-time readers may remember some old collages: a cosmic postcard in 2009, a jazzy bookmark in 2010, but neither was really language-themed.)
I don’t know whether Philip K. Dick knew about the wug test. His story ‘Precious Artifact’ was first published in Galaxy Magazine in October 1964, not long after Berko’s study but long enough for it to percolate beyond specialist circles (which he may have been exploring anyway).
Note too that wug is very similar to wub, which PKD used in other stories. Both are pleasing words in their own right.
* Image from: Berko, Jean (1958). ‘The child’s learning of English morphology.’ Word 14, no. 2–3, pp. 150–177 (PDF).