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The Language Perfectionist: “The Mischief of Language”

For the title of this year’s annual April Fools’ Day column, I’ve borrowed a phrase from Leo Rosten (1908-1997), the humorist and screenwriter. As devotees of “recreational linguistics” know, English isn’t just rules and grammar. It has a fun side, too. Wordplay can assume an astonishing variety of forms. Here’s a sampling:

  • Anagram — a word or phrase whose letters can be rearranged to form a different word or phrase. Collections of anagrams, often circulated via e-mail, include such classics as dormitory morphing into dirty room and astronomer into moon starer.

  • Palindrome — a word or sentence that reads the same forward and backward. The quintessential example, a tribute to George Goethals: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama! Some obsessive folks have composed palindromes that run for paragraphs and even pages.
  • Beheadment — a sentence crafted so that when the first letter of each word is deleted, a new and very different sentence results. Try it with this one: Show this bold Prussian that praises slaughter: slaughter brings rout.
  • Pangram — a sentence that incorporates every letter of the alphabet. Doxy with charming buzz quaffs vodka julep achieves the goal in 36 letters. It makes sense, but attempts to come closer to the holy grail of 26 letters tend to be less intelligible or even nonsensical.
  • Letterplay — a game that includes countless variations. Two examples: long words in which vowels and consonants alternate (supererorgatorily), and words whose odd and even letters form other words (triennially = tinily / renal).  

The two most popular language games are probably crossword puzzles and Scrabble. But many more exist. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, invented a game known as “doublets” or “word ladders.” The challenge is to transform one word into another by changing one letter at a time, each step forming a legitimate word. Example: Turn head into tail in five moves. (See Carroll’s solution to this one in the Ed. Note at the end of today’s column.)

The above list only scratches the surface. Dedicated recreational linguists will want to explore word squares, Tom Swifties, clerihews, double dactyls, lipograms, bouts rimes, macaronics, and many others.

An online search will turn up a plethora of websites devoted to language play. I also recommend the books of Dmitri Borgmann, Gyles Brandreth, A. Ross Eckler, Willard Espy, and Richard Lederer, among others. Lederer’s Crazy English is a good starting point. Genuine enthusiasts might consider subscribing to the venerable quarterly print magazine Word Ways, The Journal of Recreational Linguistics.

Happy April Fools’ Day!

[Ed. Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.

Lewis Carroll’s solution to the “word ladder” challenge in Don’s column today:

head > heal > teal > tell > tall > tail]