, Newburyport, MA

February 11, 2013

Word play for fun and profit

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — Sign in a restaurant: “Special Offer! Two Drinks for the Price of Two Drinks!” This absurd ad is a sort of epigram. The idea the first words lead you to expect is suddenly turned on its head, and you laugh at the ad’s ingenuity (unless of course you have only enough money for one drink) as your brain fires a few more neurons to meet the challenge. (This may be the same place that had the sign, “Keep kids at your table. Unattended children will be given a shot of espresso and a free puppy.”)

The acquaintance you meet in the bar (on your way out) says, “Hey, man, how’s your corporosity sagaciating?” a familiarity which annoys you, but makes you wonder where he got that phrase, and if it means anything. It turns out that he got this bit of word play (directly or indirectly) from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” It doesn’t mean much, but it makes you think — about “corporal” and “corpulent” and “sagacity” and what “-osity” means and how anything could “sagaciate.”

As mentioned in a previous column, many people think there’s a clear link between vocabulary and intelligence. This does not mean that one’s vocabulary is forever limited by an IQ number or some other scientific or pseudo-scientific measure of that elusive quality “intelligence.” My view is that if you can increase your vocabulary, you can increase your “practical” intelligence, because words are the tools of thought, and when we acquire more of them we can do more complex things with language. Having more or better words means we can make better distinctions between different objects and ideas, handle more abstract concepts and ultimately make better decisions. And it is clear that play with words helps you find “more and better. “

Here are some illustrative word-play examples I picked up several months ago from a copy of the London Daily Mail. These purport to be actual signs on shops and restaurants. In New York, there’s Pita Pan (next door to Wendy’s?); in Toronto you might by good fortune happen upon the Middle-Eastern restaurant “Syriandipity.” In Ocean City, Md., your quest for Mexican food might lead you to “Tequila Mockingbird.” Then there are in London “Nincomsoup,” and the fish-and-chips shop “The Codfather”; in Washington, D.C., there’s “Thai Tanic,” in Melbourne, Australia, the “Lord of the Fries,” and the “Has Beans” in Edinburgh, begorrah. For people who are willing to have fun with the language, possibilities like these seem infinite.

In this vein, even Stephen Pinker, a brilliant language boffin (“scientist or technical expert, origin uncertain” —, is not above the simple word game to make us think about what interesting wrinkles there are in language that we should think about. He points out, for instance, that “Mary had a little lamb” can be interpreted not only as a statement that Mary possesses such a creature, but alternatively that Mary ate some lamb, that she gave birth to a lamb (cf. Bart Simpson’s expression), or … [text deleted]. Outlandish to be sure, but likely to increase our sensitivity to words. This play has not taught us a new word, but rather has opened the possibility of variant (and unorthodox) meanings of existing words.

“Spoonerisms” (“the Lord is a shoving leopard”) and malapropisms are always fun and instructive. (“She’s as headstrong as an allegory,” meaning an alligator, said the original Mrs. Malaprop.) The famed Yogi Berra referred to the number of “electrical” votes a president had received. Creating your own spoonerisms and malapropisms is a great way to stretch or expand vocabulary. You know the difference between “prodigy” and “progeny?” Tell someone you were a “child progeny” and watch them raise their eyebrows as they conclude you are guilty of intellectual rodomontade — (that is to say, “vainglorious boasting.” ) This exercise will likely also illustrate that key fact that people do not listen — they are very likely to hear only what they expect to hear.

English, among its other good qualities, is amazingly “fault-tolerant” (to use a computer term). To illustrate — would you have trouble interpreting the following? “Armorica hays butter manes oaf comminutition den amy nasion unearth. Whee air constelly crating splenit gnu takneaks fur de dissimolation oaf zounds, pixters, ant prynt.” No problem. Our brains use context and some sort of word matching to make sense of what would seem nonsense. Of the above 25 “words” only 15 are English, and even they are misused. And yet you can get their meaning.

The word game suggested above is pretty good brain exercise. There is no warranty express or implied that your intelligence will increase, but it any case it can be fun.

Try a fault-tolerance exercise as above. To make it more challenging use only real words, e.g.: “Eye wood lake two asp ewe ay flavor … .” And go forth and spoonerize or malapropize, or whatever. Or trap someone into a rousing game of Scrabble!


Jonathan Wells of Newbury can be reached at