Archive | January, 2009

Playing Word Games

2 Jan

I’ve always been fascinated by word games. I love Scrabble and Boggle and Upwords and crossword puzzles and bowl-a-scores and TexTwist to death. But those aren’t the sort of word games I’ve been thinking about recently.

No, I’ve been thinking of word games of a different sort — the kind I grew up reading in the back of New York magazine. Anyone remember the old New York Magazine Competition, edited by Mary Ann Madden? My family used to gather around the dinner table and read it aloud each week, roaring with laughter at the witty responses of readers to Madden’s humorous problems. Some of these were hysterically funny.

In one Competition, readers were asked to submit brand names for products found in a drugstore. Responses included a bunch of fake birth control pills (Shed Roe, Off Spring, Junior Miss, Scionara, Kiddy Foil, Ova Kill, Bumbino, Heir Pollution, Teeny Bopper, No Kidding, Gene Fowler, Antiseedant, Womb Forwent, Absorbine Junior, Infant aside); deodorants (Pit Stop, Arrivederci Aroma); hair restorers (Hair Apparent, Balderdash); tranquilizers (Damitol); and a children’s antibiotic: (Mickeymycin).

In another, asking for names of prequels, some of the entries included: Kindergarten for Scandal;
Two Dalmations; Prince Kong; Malcolm IX; Little Richard III; We’re Running Low on Mohicans; Wee Willie Loman; Mrs. Warren’s Entry Level Position; The Personal Ads of J. Alfred Prufrock; The Baggage Check-In of the Bumble Bee; Cogito Ergo Subtotal; A Man Called Horsie.

That was pretty typical, though sometimes the Competitions got far more literary (and more challenging for 15-year-old me to suss out!). And if it whets your appetite for more, the bad news is the Competitions are nowhere to be found online (though this site at least cites some of them) and Mary Ann Madden’s three books of Competition complitions — Maybe He’s Dead, Thank You For the Giant Sea Tortoise and Son of Giant Sea Tortoise — are all out of print (how can this be?!). They’re available used if you dig a bit, but pretty pricey.

So, you’re kind of out of luck on the New York Competition front. And that’s why I’m so jazzed about my recent discovery that The Atlantic magazine runs a column by Barbara Wallraff (called, variously, Word Court, Word Fugitives and In a Word) that is clearly in the same vein as the old Competitions. And, like Mary Ann Madden back in the day, Wallraff and her readers routinely have me furrowing my brow, trying to keep up, and laughing out loud as I read.

There was one Word Fugitives recently that asked readers to submit words that described that peculiar phenomenon of things “that seem ubiquitous when you aren’t looking for them but that are nowhere to be found when you are.” Among the answers? Neverywhere… unbiquitous… ubiquitless… fewbiquitous… omniabsent… omnevanescent… ameniteases… elusiversal… You get the idea.

Another one I loved asked readers to submit words to describe the universal tendency to rearrange a dishwasher someone else has already loaded. The answers there included the thematically linked redishtribution, obsessive compulsive dishorder, dishorderly conduct, redishtricting, dishrespect and dish jockying plus the outlier (and my favorite) onecupsmanship.

If these pun-ishing pursuits didn’t make you laugh, there’s not much I can say to change your mind and you might want to stop reading right now. I live for this stuff. And reading Wallraff’s stuff got me thinking about some other word games I’ve been obsessed with and addicted to over the years:

  • The New Yorker’s last-page caption-writing contest. This fills me with admiration for the wit of the readers, mostly because I’m so god-awful bad at turning visuals into wordplay. Frustrates the heck out of me…
  • National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), which I find so impossibly, wonderfully goofy I’ll have to join several of my friends who’ve tried it and give it a whirl someday. (That’ll happen after I retire or something, since I can’t imagine having even a month of free time to devote to writing a novel!)
  • The Six-Word Memoirs web page, where people sum up their lives in, yes, exactly six words. I first discovered this in The New Yorker, back in February. Read the article here and then come back. I’ll wait. Did you notice anything odd about the story? Like the fact that EVERY SENTENCE IN IT HAD EXACTLY SIX WORDS! I caught onto that about halfway through reading it and just about died. Talk about wit and obsession in equal doses. A simple idea, but genius. I mean, it’s one thing to write a really (REALLY) short autobiography. It’s another thing to try to craft an entire article that’s as readable as anything in The New Yorker, while working under the constraint of sentences exactly six words long. I was in awe…
  • The books written without a specific letter. (This is called a “lipogram” and the number of examples is, to my mind, pretty horrifying, if incredibly entertaining. The most remarkable of the lipogram texts are the ones that eschew the letter “e” (just try it…). Amazingly, there have been at least two, that I know of, Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and the even more remarkable A Void by Georges Perec. (Perec’s work is the most amazing word-thing of all time, by virtue of the fact that it was originally written, e-less, in French as Las Disparitions  and then translated into English by Gilbert Adair who crafted a translation that ALSO includes no e’s whatsoever. That, my friends, is just crazy!
  • And if you’re still with me and at all into words, by all means check out the BBC radio program I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. By far the word-wittiest program in history and a laugh-out-loud hour you can count on.

Finally, in my catalog of word-game-wondrousness, is the “One-Pulse Word Game.” We used to play this at Steve Jackson Games all the time. I’m pretty sure Steve Jackson came up with it himself and I’ve often wondered why he’s never turned this sure-fire bit of gameplay goodness into a real game — surely, fame and fortune would quickly follow.

For those of you who’ve never experienced the…ahem… joys of the One-Pulse Word Game, here’s how it goes: Someone starts talking in words that have just one part — not two, nor three, but a lone part. Others join in the fun, in a mode of speech just as short. And they would do this, back and forth, as long as they could and as fast as they could — no pause to think, no stops or halts at all, when things went well (and if you could pull it off). It was tons of funs — it IS tons of fun. I play it now, in text, you see. Get good at it and wow your friends, or drive them off, as this can get old in no time.

I’ll stop now…

Twenty years after my departure from Steve Jackson Games, the One-Pulse Word Game remains one of the great joys in my life — not least because I’m pretty good at it — and that “it” is something most people aren’t good at. Call it a gift (as I do) or a curse (as the lovely wife, Caroline, does), it’s mine and I love it. Plus, there’s good, clean fun in doing something completely offbeat that most people don’t even notice you’re doing. And then there’s the annoyance factor once people do figure out that what they thought was a real conversation was just an excuse for you to have some private fun (something they usually realize only after you tell them you’re doing anything odd at all). But you have to get good at the one-pulse word game to reach the point that people don’t notice, so start practicing (not with ME of course!). Anyway, if you get good, you can rip — talking without pause for breath and offering up opportunities to annoy your friends no end. Life, as they say, is good!

And, as long as we’re on the topic of words, and one-syllable word stuff in particular, if you get into the One-Pulse Word Game be sure to check out the “books in words of one syllable” published toward the end of the 19th century by McLaughlin Bros. You can find some of these books in e-book form, but I strongly recommend seeking out the real thing — the books were quite beautiful, something e-books, even on my beloved Kindle, are not. You can find the actual books on antiquarian book sites or ebay once in a while and they’re utterly fascinating — an early attempt, as I understand it, to encourage immigrant literacy by offering classic, uplifting fiction and works of American history in simple language for folks learning English as adults. I have a bunch of these books now and treasure them — and I owe it all to Steve Jackson’s One-Pulse Word game.

Anyway, I wish this was all going somewhere, that I had a point to all this. Sadly, I don’t, really.  The closest I can come to a point is that the word games I love all involve work on the part of the “user” — if you don’t think about what you’re reading, or hearing or whatever, the “jokes” don’t mean a thing. Reading a Competition or a Word Justice, or listening to I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue or playing the One-Pulse Word game requires thinking, interpretation, interaction. You’re not just regurgitating memorized data… you’re not just mashing buttons… you’re actually thinking, collaborating with the creator of the “gag.” And that typifies the games I most enjoy playing and, I hope, the games I make.

So, maybe there’s a point to all this, after all. But truth be told, I just spent a bunch of time reading a year’s worth of The Atlantic and laughing at the word games in the back, which got me thinking about the New York Competition back when I was a kid, which got me thinking about all those other word-oriented pastimes I’ve come to love over the years. And that led to this — yet another overly wordy blog post.

And on that note, I will end. In words of one syll… er… part.

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