NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE – Etymologist turned branding genius, Wilbur Arable passed today at age 75 of what is believed to have been swine flu. His company, Arable, R. Aknid & Associates, issued a press release assuring the public that Wilbur was out of the office for several weeks due to what seemed at first to be a simple cold, and that he was hospitalized and isn’t believed to have infected anyone. Due to his age, the company had been prepared for his passing for some time and will continue work as usual. Wilbur’s son, Charlie Arable, will be taking his father’s place as CEO.
Born in rural Maine, where he maintained a weekend home in recent years and where his burial is to take place, Wilbur’s difficult childhood has been chronicled in his autobiography To the Slaughter: My Brush with Death and the Words That Saved Me. The youngest and smallest in his family, Wilbur’s first memory was of his father attempting to attack him with an ax before crumpling up in tears when his daughter by a previous marriage rushed in and stopped him. “They couldn’t afford me,” Wilbur wrote, “so just like Hansel and Gretel’s parents, they had to figure something else out.”
Family friends took Wilbur in but he was made to work for his keep and spent most of his days in the barn, tending to the animals. “It was a nightmarish foster home situation, even though it wasn’t technically state-run foster care,” he wrote. In later life, Wilbur became an advocate for foster care reform and donated to Children’s Rights and other organizations fighting to change the circumstances of neglected and abused children.
Wilbur’s appearance when he was young also made him a target for bullying. At county fairs, he was often pushed into the pigpens. “Yes, I was pink, yes, I was round. I’m still both,” he wrote. “But look at where I am now, and remember that the pigs are the ones who take over in Animal Farm.” Wilbur’s friendship with spindly Charlotte was what he has always claimed saved him. He was illiterate until he met her, as his caretakers wouldn’t send him to school, but she taught him how to read and write. Together, they entered local spelling bees and sat in the library poring over words. “Charlotte read everything; advertisements, books, signs, anything could give her an idea,” Wilbur wrote.
Charlotte died tragically young when she got pregnant and found herself with “something of a litter rather than just one baby,” according to Wilbur’s book. Her quintuplets were born (only three of whom survived) and Charlotte died of rapid blood loss. Wilbur has insisted he was not the father of Charlotte’s children despite speculation to the contrary arising when he came to public attention in the 1970s.
Despite his harrowing childhood, Wilbur attended college with a full scholarship and studied English. He proceeded to receive first an MA and then a PhD in Linguistics, and was then hired at Merriam-Webster. Soon he became widely known among the etymologically inclined, and served as a consultant on style guides such as AP and MLA.
Wilbur quickly became interested in the power of words in other areas. He founded an advertising firm in 1972, “when everyone else was going to Grateful Dead concerts and getting stoned,” and it quickly became one of the lead branding companies in the nation, working with world-renowned brands on improving their logos, messages and advertising copy.
Other than his autobiography which takes Wilbur through to his late teens, he kept his personal life severely private. His son Charlie was adopted through the foster care system in the early ‘90s, but Wilbur is not known to have had any other contact with his former family or any love interests over the years. “He was married to his work,” R. Aknid wrote in a leaked intra-office eulogy.
Wilbur’s funeral details are being kept to his closest acquaintances, but in the same statement his company released was a suggestion to donate to children’s advocacy groups in Wilbur’s name.