For the rest of Nick's fourth-grade year, at least once a week, Mrs. Avery heard a loud "peeeeep" from somewhere in her classroom—sometimes it was a high-pitched chirp, and sometimes it was a very high-pitched chirp.
Don't even think about chewing a piece of gum within fifty feet of her. If you did, Mrs. Granger would see you and catch you and make you stick the gum onto a bright yellow index card. Then, she would safety-pin the card to the front of your shirt and make you wear it for the rest of the school day.
But her pride and joy was one of those huge dictionaries with every word in the universe in it, the kind of book it takes two kids to carry. It sat on its own little table at the front of her classroom, sort of like the altar at the front of a church.
Nick was an expert at asking the delaying question—also known as the teacher-stopper, or the guaranteed time-waster. At three minutes before the bell, in that split second between the end of today's class work and the announcement of tomorrow's homework, Nick could launch a question guaranteed to sidetrack the teacher long enough to delay or even wipe out the homework assignment.
"But if all of us in this room decided to call that creature something else, and if everyone else did, too, then that's what it would be called, and one day it would be written in the dictionary that way. We decide what goes in that book." And she pointed at the giant dictionary.
Then when Nick went to preschool, he learned that if he wanted his teacher and the other kids to understand him, he had to use the word music. But gwagala meant that nice sound to Nick, because Nick said so. Who says gwagala means music? "You do, Nicholas."
Nick didn't say "pen." Instead, he said, "Here's your... frindle."
"Frindle?" Janet took her pen and looked at him like he was nuts. She wrinkled her nose and said, "What's a frindle?"
And when she asked, the lady reached right for the pens and said, "Blue or black?"
Nick was standing one aisle away at the candy racks, and he was grinning.
Frindle was a real world. It meant pen. Who says frindle means pen? "You do, Nicholas."
But that just made everyone want to use Nick's new word even more. Staying after school with The Lone Granger became a badge of honor. There were kids in her classroom every day after school. It went on like that for a couple of weeks.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it. It's just fun, and it really is a real word. It's not a bad word, just different. And besides, it's how words really change, isn't it? That's what you said."
"The word pen has a long, rich history. It comes from the Latin word for feather, pinna. It started to become our word pen because quills made from feathers were some of the first writing tools ever made. It's a word that comes from somewhere. It makes sense, Nicholas."
“But frindle makes just as much sense to me,” said Nick. “And after all, didn’t somebody just make up the word pinna, too?”
That got a spark from Mrs. Granger’s eyes …
And the next day, all the fifth graders did it again, and so did a lot of other students—over two hundred kids.
Parents called to complain. The school bus drivers threatened to go on strike. And then the school board and the superintendent got involved.
What could she say, though? Mrs. Chatham couldn't very well keep the reporter away from Mrs. Granger because, after all, America is a free country with a free press.
A boy who was almost falling over from the weight of his backpack looked up at her and smiled. "It's not so bad. There's always a bunch of my friends there. I've written that sentence six hundred times now."
Or this bit about Nick: "Everyone agrees that Nick Allen masterminded this plot that cleverly raises issues about free speech and academic rules. He is the boy who invented the new word."
He could feel it when someone recognized him, and it made him shy and awkward.
Kids at school started expecting him to be clever and funny all the time, and even for a kid as smart as Nick, that was asking a lot.
"I have always said that the dictionary is the finest tool ever made for educating young minds, and I still say that. Children need to understand that there are rules about words and language, and that those rules have a history that makes sense. And to pretend that a perfectly good English word can be replaced by a silly made-up word just for the fun of it, well, it's not something I was ready to stand by and watch without a fight."
"Well," said Nick, "The funny thing is, even though I invented it, it's not my word anymore. Frindle belongs to everyone now, and I guess everyone will figure out what happens together."
All the kids and even some of the teachers used the new word. At first it was on purpose. Then it became a habit, and by the middle of February, frindle was just a word, like door or tree or hat.
But then Nick remembered what had happened with frindle. It stopped him cold. He was sure that if all the kids stopped buying lunch, sooner or later someone would figure out that it was all Nick Allen's idea. He would get in trouble. People would write about it in the newspaper. The principal would call his parents—anything could happen.
I see now that this is the kind of chance that a teacher hopes for and dreams about—a chance to see bright young students take an idea they have learned in a boring old classroom and put it to a real test in their own world.
So many things have gone out of date. But after all these years, words are still important. Words are still needed by everyone. Words are used to think with, to write with, to dream with, to hope and pray with. And that is why I love the dictionary. It endures. It works. And as you now know, it also changes and grows.