Phantom Tollbooth's "Official Which"

Excerpt from Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, a play on words, numbers, and everything in between.

The story of Faintly Macabre, the Official Which of Dictionopolis

You can read this excerpt in more context from the book.

"Don't be frightened," she laughed. "I'm not a witch -- I'm a Which."

"Oh," said Milo, because he couldn't think of anything else to say.

"I'm Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked Which," she continued, "and I'm certainly not going to harm you."

"What's a Which?" asked Milo, releasing Tock and stepping a little closer.

"Well," said the old lady, just as a rat scurried across her foot, "I am the king's great aunt. For years and years I was in charge of choosing which words were to be used for all occasions, which ones to say, and which ones not to say, which ones to write, and which ones not to write. As you can well imagine, with all the thousands to choose from, it was a most important and responsible job. I was given the title of 'Official Which,' which made me very proud and happy.

"At first I did my best to make sure that only the most proper and fitting words were used. Everything was said clearly and simply and no words were wasted. I had signs posted all over the palace and the marketplace which said:

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

"But power corrupts, and soon I grew miserly and chose fewer and fewer words, trying to keep as many as possible for myself. I had posted new signs which said:

An Ill-chosen Word is the Fool's Messenger

"Soon sales began to fall off in the market. The people were afraid to buy as many words as before, and hard times came on the kingdom. But still I grew more and more miserly. Soon there were so few words chosen that hardly anything could be said, and even casual conversation became difficult. Again, I had new signs posted which said:

Speak Fitly or be Silent Wisely

"And finally I had even these replaced by ones which read simply:

Silence is Golden

"All talk stopped. No words sold, the marketplace closed down, and the people grew poor and disconsolate. When the king saw what had happened, he became furious and had me cast into this dungeon where you see me now, an older and wiser woman.

"That was many years ago," she continued; "but they never appointed a new Which, and that explains why today people use as many words as they can and think themselves very wise for doing so. For always remember that while it is wrong to use too few, it is often far worse to use too many."