Intersections of Puzzle and Poetry

The more you look, the more you can find puzzles in all sorts of interesting places. We find them in literature, in historical documents, and in popular culture.

So it should come as no surprise that puzzles can be found in the world of poetry as well.

We’ve covered a few examples where poetry and puzzles have overlapped in the past, whether it’s the creations of Peter Valentine, the works of Edgar Allan Poe, or the art of carmina figurata.

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But that’s only scratching the surface.

One of the most common ways that puzzly techniques find their way into poetry is through acrostics. Acrostics spell out messages with the first letter of each line or verse.

One of the most famous is a poem by Lewis Carroll at the end of Through the Looking-Glass where he reveals the identity of the girl who inspired his famous stories:

A boat beneath a sunny sky,
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July—

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Pleased a simple tale to hear—

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die.
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream—
Lingering in the golden gleam—
Life, what is it but a dream?

Carroll certainly offers the most famous example, but I must confess that my favorite example comes from a story on Wikipedia. Poet Rolfe Humphries was banned from Poetry Magazine for life for an acrostic aimed at a diplomat and former president of Columbia University. The acrostic quite bluntly read “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass.”

Of course, the message reading down — also known as an acrostich — isn’t the only way these messages can be hidden.

There are also examples of mesostich — where the word or message is spelled with letters in the middle of the verse — and telestich, where the last letters of each line spell a name or message.

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[Image courtesy of Twitter.]

These techniques were also used in ancient Greek inscriptions, where one particular example, AL205, featured acrostich, mesostich, and telestich messages at the same time.

Other puzzly stylings have also allowed poets to flex their wordplay muscles.

For instance, David Shulman wrote a 14-line sonnet about George Washington’s famous river crossing where every line is an anagram of “Washington crossing the Delaware”:

A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!

The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.

Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.

George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!

There are also ABC poems, a form where the goal of each poem is to use words starting with each letter of the alphabet in order. You can find some entertaining and impressive examples here.

Some poets, however, have flipped the puzzle poem on its head by treating the poems like puzzles. The folks at UVA’s Puzzle Poetry group utilize Tetris-like puzzle pieces with words on them to assemble poems.

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[Image courtesy of the University of Virginia.]

The concept dates back to 2017, a creation of Neal Curtis and Brad Pasanek, serving as a way to both explore and deconstruct the art of poetry itself by making a puzzle out of it.

It’s a very cool idea, reminiscent of how magnetic poetry sets allow you to turn your fridge into a canvas by assembling and reworking the order of the various available words.

Puzzles by their very nature are about finding a solution, bringing order out of chaos, whether it’s assembling puzzle pieces, answering devious crossword clues to fill a grid, or unraveling a tricky brain teaser that pushes you to think in a different way.

And since poetry is all about expressing truths in a personal way, it makes a lovely sort of sense that puzzly techniques would intertwine with this thoughtful, elusive form of art.


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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Young Adult Fiction

In the past, we have assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films, television, and literature. The goal was to highlight characters who stand out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the fourth installment in this delightful series, we turn our attention to books for young adult readers, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

So let’s meet (or revisit) some wickedly bright minds from teen-centric reads.


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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Nancy Drew

Originally created as a female counterpart to the Hardy Boys, detective Nancy Drew has largely eclipsed them at this point, cementing her reputation as one of the most prominent teen detectives in literature. Nancy’s interest in numerous fields — psychology, language, and many others — served her well as she dove headlong into each case.

Her gift for association — making connections others miss — gave her a leg-up in locating clues and building cases before her lawyer father and the local police could do so. The criminal element in River Heights never left a puzzle that the diligent and outspoken Nancy couldn’t solve.

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[Image courtesy of Claire Fox Writes.]

Hermione Granger, Harry Potter series

When you’re a student of magic at one of the most dangerous schools in the world, you need to be sharp and ready. And Hermione Granger has those qualities in abundance. As studious as they come, Hermione is one of the puzzliest characters in modern literature. She brewed the notoriously difficult Polyjuice Potion, solved Professor Snape’s potion riddle, and deduced that Remus Lupin was a werewolf.

She’s as comfortable bending time to enhance her coursework (and save a few lives) as she is battling the gossip and lies of the treacherous Rita Skeeter. Numerous mysteries surrounding Hogwarts and Voldemort are solved by the trio of Ron, Harry, and Hermione, but without the stalwart and clever Miss Granger, Ron and Harry would’ve been out of luck.

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[Image courtesy of Thrifty Teachers.]

Violet Baudelaire, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

The eldest of the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet has the most mechanical mind of the trio. She is a prolific inventor, making marvelous contraptions out of whatever’s handy, and often getting her and her siblings out of dangerous situations in the process. Pursued by the malevolent and greedy Count Olaf, Violet outwits Olaf on more than one occasion, paying close attention to him and tailoring her behavior accordingly.

Whether she’s inventing a grappling hook to save her sister or picking a lock to find evidence against Count Olaf, Violet has a mind made for puzzles, whether she’s putting things together or taking them apart. As imaginative as she is capable, no mechanical brain teaser could stymie her for long.

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[Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.]

Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game series

Although Ender’s story is not as happy as some of the others in this list, as mistreated and manipulated as he is throughout the first book, he should absolutely be counted among the best puzzlers in young adult literature. He is a phenomenal tactician, first in laser tag competitions in zero gravity, then later in simulated interstellar combat scenarios as part of his command training.

Ender uses his cleverness to circumvent the final test and win an unwinnable battle. And when he discovers that the battle was NOT simulated, and he had in fact won a war through his clever ruthlessness, he turns his puzzly mind to figuring out the mistakes that led to the war in the first place. As his adventures continue, he unravels numerous mysteries, often saving lives in the process.

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[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Parzival, Aech, and Art3mis, Ready Player One

In a virtual world known as the OASIS — a fully immersive Internet where work, school, and recreation are conducted — the characters of Ready Player One are on the ultimate puzzle hunt. For five years, the prize has remained unclaimed, no matter how expansive or expensive the methods employed to find it. Entire corporations are dedicated to solving it, because the prize is nothing less than control of the OASIS itself.

Which makes it all the more impressive that game and puzzle-loving teenagers are the ones to uncover several of the keys needed to complete the hunt. They are clever, determined, and resourceful puzzlers who combine a thirst for knowledge, top-notch gaming skills, and impressive deductive reasoning to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Turtle Wexler, The Westing Game

When you find yourself — and everyone else in your apartment building — on the list of possible heirs for a dead millionaire’s fortune, you know something strange is going on. And if it’s a race to a fortune predicated on solving an intricate puzzle, solving a murder, and uncovering a mysterious secret, then Turtle Wexler is the person you want on your side.

Possessing a keen mind and some serious analytical chops — after all, she plays the stock market at 13 years old — Turtle’s intellect is nearly as quick as her shin-kicking feet. Another strong tactician, Turtle takes advantage of opportunities (and creating a few of her own), eventually winning the Westing Game.

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[Image courtesy of Christina Reads YA.]

Eugenides, The Queen’s Thief Series

The puzzles that Eugenides concerns himself with are far different than the ones tackled by other characters on this list. Eugenides is a master strategist, a chess player who must treat entire countries as his gameboard. Eugenides is observant and patient, playing out slow-burn tactics that can take months or years to come to fruition, all in the hopes of protecting those he serves.

It’s quite something to solve a puzzle in front of you, but it’s something else entirely to solve the next five puzzles before they’ve even shown themselves. Over the course of The Queen’s Thief series, Eugenides shows a tremendous understanding of how others think, what motivates them, and who can be trusted. There’s not a logic problem or a brain teaser around that Eugenides couldn’t plot his way past.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Sticky, Constance, Kate, and Reynie, The Mysterious Benedict Society

If you’re looking for the most overtly puzzly quartet in young adult lit, this should be your first stop. These books are loaded to the brim with puzzles and mysteries, and this fearsomely brilliant foursome is equipped to handle any riddle, cipher, or brain teaser in their way.

Whether it’s Reynie’s logical deduction skills, Kate’s incisive ability to find shortcuts, Sticky’s memory and recall, or Constance’s penchant for finding patterns in plain sight, the sinister plans of Mr. Curtain (and any other puzzly evildoer out there) don’t stand a chance.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of young adult lit? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: DiscWorld

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[Image courtesy of Blizzard Watch.]

There are many strange worlds in the realms of fantasy literature, crafted in loving detail across dozens of novels and stories. But no fictional world is as hilarious, as thought-provoking, as sincere, as strange, or as endlessly inventive as the DiscWorld.

DiscWorld is a pizza-shaped planet that rests on the backs of four giant elephants that themselves stand atop the shell of a giant turtle that swims through space. The masterful creation of author Terry Pratchett, DiscWorld is a beloved universe of stories that encapsulates social commentary, parody, and epic adventure, all told through the lens of classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads.

And when you have a world that encompasses everything from witches and golems to time travel and Death himself, you’re bound to encounter a puzzle or two.

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we’re looking at the colorful ways that Terry Pratchett incorporated puzzles into one of the most singular, expansive worlds in fantasy literature.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

There are numerous capable puzzle solvers in the DiscWorld novels. Across several novels, Commander Vimes of the City Watch cracks both criminal cases and elaborate conspiracies thanks to his street smarts and years of detective work. Career criminal-turned-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig unravels several criminal conspiracies on his journey from miscreant to hero. Even Death, alongside his granddaughter Susan, takes a turn testing his puzzly might over the holidays when they uncover why the Hogfather (DiscWorld‘s version of Santa Claus) has gone missing.

But you cannot talk about capable puzzlers in DiscWorld without mentioning Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the fabled city of Ankh-Morpork.

A trained assassin and mastermind who pulls puppet strings all over the city, Vetinari is both hero and villain, doing whatever he deems necessary to keep the city running smoothly.

As you might expect, he’s quite a fan of puzzles. (He plays games as well, like Thud and Stealth Chess, but we’re going to focus on puzzles today.)

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[Image courtesy of VS Battles Wiki.]

He’s something of a whiz when it comes to decoding and decrypting messages. At the Blind Letter Office in the Post Office — where letters unable to be delivered end up — Vetinari sometimes tests his wits by unraveling the near-gibberish found on some of the letters.

For example, Vetinari encountered a letter addressed to “Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmarrsc” and offhandedly explained that the letter was intended for “K. Whistler, Baker, 3 Pigsty Hill.” How, you ask? By decoding the above into the much-more coherent “Does Buns Opposite the Pharmacy.”

Although the regular employees of the Blind Letter Office manage to translate five out of every six addresses that cross their desks, they view Lord Vetinari’s puzzly skill with awe.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

When it comes to British-style/cryptic crosswords, he brings equal skill to the table. In fact, the only discernible sign that Lord Vetinari is drunk is when it takes him 15 seconds longer than normal to solve The Ankh-Morpork Times‘ daily crossword puzzle.

He is routinely challenged by “Puzzler,” the setter for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Naturally, his begrudging respect for the skilled constructor leads him to pursue the secret identity of Puzzler.

In a later DiscWorld novel, Vetinari believes that fellow trivia enthusiast and pet-food shop owner Grace Speaker could be Puzzler. He puts her under observation when it’s revealed she is one of five people in the city who correctly answers the trivia question “What is, or are, Pysdxes?”

(For the record, the other four are Vetinari himself, his assistant Drumknott, Puzzler, and the Curator of Ephebian Antiquities at the Royal Art Museum.)

Later confirming her secret life as Puzzler, Vetinari continues to welcome her challenging puzzles, even if entries like “snarkenfaugister” leave him exasperated at her fiendish and obscure vocabulary choices. (Apparently crosswordese is a thing on DiscWorld as well…)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In the novel Making Money, a cryptic crossword clue is presented for the reader to solve as well: Shaken players shift the load (9)

Later in the novel, the answer is revealed. Did you figure it out?

The answer is CARTHORSE. The word “shaken” implies that some letter-mixing is involved, and if you shake up ORCHESTRA (the “players” from the clue), you get CARTHORSE, a device which allows you to “shift the load.”

Naturally, this clue was no match for Vetinari.

[Screenshot from the Penny Dell Sudoku App!]

It’s worth noting that Sudoku has also made its way into DiscWorld, though in a tongue-in-cheek dismissive fashion. In DiscWorld, it is called Jikan no Muda, which is Japanese for “waste of time.” Lord Vetinari considers Jikan no Muda puzzles far easier than the crossword, and therefore less worthy of his attention.

As you’d expect from a master manipulator like the Patrician, he enjoys crosswords more because they allow him to comprehend how another person’s mind works when actively trying to mislead.

In the capable hands of a world-class storyteller, little puzzly details like this don’t simply add color to an established character; they can set the tone for the adventures to come.

In Making Money, for instance, mentioning both crosswords and Jikan no Muda is no coincidence. The entire novel is built around the battle between those who prefer to deal in words (Vimes, Vetinari, Moist) and those who prefer numbers (Mr. Bent, who runs the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork).

One of my all-time favorite series even before I compiled these puzzly moments, the DiscWorld books make the most of every story element involved, whether it’s witchcraft, magic, misunderstandings, fiendish plots, or simply one city official’s penchant for puzzles.


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The Best Puzzle Solvers in Fiction

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Last year, we assembled super-teams of the best puzzle solvers in horror films and television respectively. The goal was to highlight characters who stood out, the ones you’d want on your side, because they’re clever, decisive, and immensely capable.

In the third installment in this illustrious series, we turn our attention to literature, seeking out the quickest minds and the deftest problem solvers from the printed page.

Yes, this list will be a bit detective-heavy, since they’re the protagonists most frequently put into situations where puzzly problem-solving becomes synonymous with the character. But we still think it’s a fair representation of the best puzzlers in the medium.


Oh, two quick notes before we get on with the post.

1.) Since both Batman and Sherlock Holmes were listed amongst the best puzzle solvers on television, we’ve opted to exclude them from this entry in order to make room for other individuals. Obviously they still make the cut, but it never hurts to share the spotlight.

2.) Fans of children’s books and young adult novels may be disappointed that the likes of Nancy Drew and Winston Breen didn’t make the list. But that’s for good reason. They’ll be getting their own list in the near future.


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Inspector Morse (Colin Dexter)

[Image courtesy of eBay.]

Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse is the protagonist of 13 novels and dozens of hours of television. This opera-loving detective is famous for enjoying cryptic crosswords, and several of his novels challenge the reader with a crossword clue early on, revealing the answer in a later chapter.

Possessing a keen intellect, Morse solves cases through diligence, intuition, and a near-photographic memory. When you factor in his puzzle skills, you end up with someone who can, for instance, effortlessly realize that the spelling mistakes in a piece of evidence are a hidden threatening message, not mere errors.

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Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L. Sayers)

[Image courtesy of LibraryCat.]

Although investigation is a hobby for Lord Peter Wimsey rather than a profession, that doesn’t make his efforts any less impressive or diligent. He offhandedly solves a cryptic clue for his valet during breakfast, something that will prove helpful later when he has to solve “The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will.”

Resourceful in the extreme, Wimsey always manages to gather the necessary info to crack the case, whether that requires faking his own death or unraveling an entire cryptic puzzle in order to settle an acrimonious family gathering.

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C. Auguste Dupin (Edgar Allan Poe)

[Image courtesy of Learnodo-Newtonic.]

Perhaps the first literary detective, this creation of Edgar Allan Poe combined a keen eye for observation with an impressive knack for abductive reasoning (inference or making good guesses, as Sherlock Holmes does). Equally at home solving mysteries or chasing forgotten manuscripts, Dupin is the template from which so many crime solving characters sprung.

A master at demystifying enigmas, conundrums, and hieroglyphics, Poe’s creation employed “ratiocination” to place himself in the shoes of criminals and work out not only what they’d done, but where they went after the crime. Surely no criminal mastermind or logic puzzle could withstand the skills of C. Auguste Dupin.

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Mary Russell (Laurie R. King)

[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

Fans of Sherlock Holmes know that he retired from crime solving and spent his twilight years beekeeping. But worry not, England, because Mary Russell ably fits the role Holmes left behind. As observant and strong-willed as her mentor, Mary is brilliant, proving herself a worthy student for Holmes while still a teenager.

A student of many languages, a theology scholar, and an avid reader, Mary is a fierce and intriguing character who embodies many of the puzzliest attributes of Holmes, but with her own idiosyncratic touches, even managing to resolve lingering threads from some of Holmes’s most famous cases.

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George Smiley (John le Carré)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

There are many characters in literature that think ten steps ahead and manage to succeed, but George Smiley is one of the few who does so in believable fashion. The fictional spymaster and intelligence agent may not have Bond’s rakish good looks, but he has the puzzly chops to crack even the most diabolical schemes.

With an encyclopedic knowledge of spycraft and a perceptive mind capable of subtly getting information out of people, George Smiley is a master of looking at the chessboard of international gamesmanship and figuring out the best moves to make, which pieces to sacrifice, and how to read your opponent and outmaneuver him.

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William of Baskerville (Umberto Eco)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Given how many cryptic crossword constructors in England name themselves after Inquisitors, it’s appropriate to find a strong puzzle solver during the time of the Inquisition. Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, often regarded as insightful and humble, refused to condemn a translator as a heretic, deducing that he was innocent. Later, after leaving the ranks of the Inquisition, William is asked to help explain a series of strange deaths at a Benedictine monastery.

William manages to solve the case AND disprove the presence of a demonic force in the abbey, but not in time to prevent tragedy. Nonetheless, his impressive deductions and masterful efforts to unravel the mysteries at the heart of the case — braving labyrinths both real and invented — are key to the novel’s success.

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Sirius Black (J.K. Rowling)

[Image courtesy of Boxlunch.]

Yes, he was a devotee of the Daily Prophet crossword, but it takes more than that to land you on this list. Although reckless at times after a long incarceration in Azkaban, Sirius proved on more than one occasion to have a quick, clever, and strategic mind, a trait shared by many great puzzlers.

He managed to sneak into Hogwarts twice, escaped the infamous Azkaban prison, and deduced where he could find the traitorous Peter Pettigrew. Not bad, especially when you consider the damage Dementors can do to someone’s psyche.

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The Black Widowers (Isaac Asimov)

[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

A fictional dining club (men only, sadly), the Black Widowers often solve problems without ever leaving the dinner table. While many mystery novels walk you through the detective’s deductions and theories at the very end as the crime is solved, each Black Widowers case is solved in front of you, as they ask questions and pose solutions, before the final deduction (and correct solution) emerges.

Combining skills in chemistry, cryptography, law, art, and math, the Black Widowers are equipped to handle every puzzle, even if common-sense solutions occasionally elude them.


Did I miss any world-class puzzlers from famous (or obscure) works of literature? Let me know in the comments section below! I’d love to hear from you!

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Letter rip! It’s lipogram time!

[Building words and phrases, one letter at a time.]

This week I did something a little different in the preview for today’s blog. Usually on Mondays, I post a brief preview of the week’s blog posts, Facebook and Twitter content, et cetera.

But instead of a short teaser about the entry, I posted the following clue:

How quickly can you find out what is unusual about this paragraph? It looks so ordinary that you would think that nothing was wrong with it at all and, in fact, nothing is. But it is unusual. Why? If you study it and think about it you may find out, but I am not going to assist you in any way. You must do it without coaching. No doubt, if you work at it for long, it will dawn on you. Who knows? Go to work and try your skill. Par is about half an hour.

Did you figure out what’s curious about it? It’s missing the letter E!

[A keyboard displaying the most commonly used letters in the language in delightful bar-graph form. It should come as no surprise which letter appears most frequently.]

That paragraph is a terrific example of a lipogram, a written work that purposely avoids or leaves out a given letter. Lipograms are part writing challenge and part puzzle, taxing your vocabulary and your creativity.

(Removing any letter can make things tougher. I remember when my friend’s L key on his keyboard stopped working. “I think it will do well” became “I think it wi do we” until he started using the 1 key as a substitute L.)

And if you think writing a paragraph without the letter E is tough, imagine writing an entire novel without it. Ernest Vincent Wright did just that in 1939 with his 50,000 word novel Gadsby. He even went so far as to rephrase famous lines by William Congreve and John Keats in order to keep the letter E away.

Gadsby partially inspired a French author named Georges Perec to do the same, and his novel La Disparition (also known as A Void) doesn’t feature a single E over the course of three hundred pages.

There are numerous other lipogrammatic works and puzzles, but I think my favorite is the novel Ella Minnow Pea by author Mark Dunn.

Not only is the novel told through letters or notes shared by several characters, but the narrative grows increasingly lipogrammatic as the story progresses.

Check out this summary from Wikipedia:

The novel is set on the fictitious island of Nollop, off the coast of South Carolina, which is home to Nevin Nollop, the supposed creator of the well-known pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” This sentence is preserved on a memorial statue to its creator on the island and is taken very seriously by the government of the island.

Throughout the book, tiles containing the letters fall from the inscription beneath the statue, and as each one does, the island’s government bans the contained letter’s use from written or spoken communication. A penalty system is enforced for using the forbidden characters, with public censure for a first offense, lashing or stocks (violator’s choice) upon a second offense and banishment from the island nation upon the third.

So as the book progresses, fewer and fewer letters are used! It’s both an impressive linguistic feat and a wonderful work of totalitarian satire. (And how can you not love a character’s name sounding like LMNOP?)

[In a Christmas episode of the ’90s cartoon Animaniacs, Wakko keeps spelling Santa “Santla,” inspiring a rousing, punny version of “Noel” to correct Wakko’s spelling.]

Our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles have a lipogram puzzle: Dittos. In Dittos, you’re given a series of letters, and then told to spell five common words using those letters AND a given letter. You can repeat the given letter as many times as necessary.

For example, if you were given the letters AAENRY and then told to make 2 five-letter words, using D as many times as necessary, you might come up with DREAD and DANDY.

But what about the flip side? What if you decided you were only going to use one vowel? Well then, my ambitious friend, you’ve accepted the challenge of creating a univocalic.

I’m not familiar with any longer works that are univocalic. You usually see them in paragraph form or, occasionally, palindrome form. “A man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” is probably the most famous univocalic in history.

(Univocalics are not to be confused with supervocalics, which are words that include all five vowels, like sequoia or abstemious.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a curious subset of puzzles and wordplay. One of my fellow puzzlers suggested I pursue lipograms as a follow-up to my post a little while back about single-letter puzzles, and I couldn’t resist.

Have you ever tried to write a lipogram or univocalic, PuzzleNationers? Let me know! I’d love to see them!

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