The Wug-Plant

‘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:

philip-k-dick-golden-man-methuen-book-coverMilt 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.

For (vaguely) related reading, see the semantic scope of Martian, a fine distinction from Philip K. Dick, and other posts on language acquisition.


* Image from: Berko, Jean (1958). ‘The child’s learning of English morphology.’ Word 14, no. 2–3, pp. 150–177 (PDF).


17 Responses to The Wug-Plant

  1. Mrs Fever says:

    I like your artistic rendering of the wug-plant. :)

  2. old gobbo says:

    I am reminded by your first drawing attempt of a disturbing plant in Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Cetaganda”, where Miles Vorkosigan tries and fails to stop his cousin Ivan from picking an incompletely-fruited kitten. But Edward Lear probably started the faunofloral frenzy in modern times: I recall, alas – too distantly – a polly-something with parrots, along with various other unlikely pairings. And Lear is, of course, a rich source for language games.

    However my objection to your wug plant, attractive though it is, is that it looks as if it might thrive on earth.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It does, doesn’t it? I wouldn’t mind it thriving, as long as it didn’t become invasive – and the same goes for the wugs.

      Thanks for the tip on Lois McMaster Bujold; somehow I’ve not read her work yet. Your mention of ‘faunofloral frenzy’ brings cordyceps to mind. Though strictly speaking faunofungal, the nightmarish result is a far cry from the seeming harmlessness of wugs but very much in keeping with the SF theme:

  3. old gobbo says:

    I lead a quiet life, and this film, to me, is very much in the vein of “this book told me more about hippopotamuses (?) than I wanted to know”.
    Bujold suffers from some sloppy editing and one or two irritating usage lapses, but she often writes well and is genuinely inventive in the space opera field. I much prefer her Vorkosigan stories, and have preferred reading them chronologically. This has the drawback that you start with “Shards of Honour” which has some definite weaknesses, but then it was her first one. She is often very funny.

  4. astraya says:

    Your wug-plant is full of plant-wugs!

  5. When I graduated, the linguistics department at my school gave me a wug mug. I think I was more excited about the mug than my diploma. A professor told me they would stop giving them to students after this year because the wug is carrying a school flag, and I guess they broke some copyright rules. So now I have a limited edition collegiate wug mug. It’s my most prized possession next to my copy of the Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics (another gift from the department). Okay, “most prized possession” is a slight exaggeration.

  6. Kate Bunting says:

    Old Gobbo mentions Lear; the drawing immediately recalled to me his ‘nonsense botany’

    • Stan Carey says:

      Oh yes! I like those better than his limericks.

      • old gobbo says:

        It was of course the botany to which I tried to draw our attention. And Lear was a remarkable draughtsman. But you would be mistaken to dismiss his verse. The constraint he set himself in repeating the first rhyme-word at the limerick end produced some excellent results – without even opening them, I invite you to consider “There was an old man with a beard” for instance. But what one must read is the longer poems, the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo, for instance, the Jumblies, not to mention “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and the Dong.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: