DIY Wordplay!

[The word “wordplay” presented as an ambigram, meaning it can be read in more than one direction.]

Wordplay has been an integral part of puzzles since the very beginning. Over the last few years, I’ve written about wordplay in the blog numerous times, whether we’re discussing clever crossword cluing, how rebus and cryptograms hide messages in plain sight, or how palindromes were once used as magical incantations to ward off threats.

I mentioned several forms of wordplay in my Yogi Berra post earlier this year, like mondegreens, Wellerisms, and Spoonerisms, and today I’d like to explore a few more. And none of these require anything more than a creative mind, something to write with, and something to write on.


Palindromes

Palindromes are a classic — and challenging — form of wordplay. Essentially, you’re trying to come up with phrases or entire sentences that read the same backwards and forwards.

Perhaps the most famous palindrome is “a man, a plan, a canal… Panama!” But I suspect it was a game of palindromic one-upsmanship that led to this ambitious expansion:

A man, a plan, a canoe, pasta, heros, rajahs, a coloratura, maps, snipe, percale, macaroni, a gag, a banana bag, a tan, a tag, a banana bag again (or a camel), a crepe, pins, Spam, a rut, a Rolo, cash, a jar, sore hats, a peon, a canal — Panama!

A fun way to make a game of these is to see if you can incorporate a friend’s name into a palindrome. For instance, this one I concocted for a buddy is a particular favorite of mine:

My friend Sean has a really weird last name: Emantsaldriewyllaerasahnaesdnierfym.

Heck, there are even awards now for impressive acts of palindromic wordplay: The SymmyS Awards.


Acronyms

Acronyms are abbreviations where each letter represents a full word in a phrase or sentence, and the acronym is pronounced like its own word. NATO, laser, MoMa, ALF… these are all fairly well-known acronyms.

(Acronyms are often confused with initialisms, where each letter of the abbreviated word is pronounced, like ATM, MVP, and CEO.)

But there’s a simple wordplay game lurking here. Pick a word (or better yet, someone’s name) and see if you can come up with what it means.

For example, if your friend Dwayne enjoys sailing, you might create the acronym “Doesn’t Work, Always Yachting, No Exceptions.”


Portmanteaus

Much like the namesake bag with dual functions, portmanteau words combine two words in one, like smog for “smoke” and “fog” or spork for “fork” and “spoon.”

One game fellow puzzlers and I have played with portmanteaus is describing a situation that has no word to summarize it, then seeing if there’s a portmanteau that can sum it up succinctly and humorously.

(A common variation of this is coming up with one-word names for celebrity couples or fictional pairings in TV shows. Brangelina is perhaps the most famous example.)

Let me give you an example. My friend has started a blog where she reviews the made-for-TV Christmas movies they do on the Hallmark Channel, and she asked for suggestions for what to call the project. So, being the portmanteau enthusiast that I am, I suggested Christmasterpiece Theater.


Tom Swifties

My favorite pun-delivery system by far is the Tom Swifty. You describe a scene or offer a statement, and then use a punny adjective, adverb, or verb to close out the joke. Examples:

  • “I have to keep this fire lit,” Tom bellowed.
  • “I dropped the toothpaste,” said Tom, crestfallen.
  • “I have a BA in social work,” said Tom with a degree of concern.
  • “I used to command a battalion of German ants,” said Tom exuberantly.

Coming up with new ones can be great puzzly fun, or you can create a game by giving someone the quotation and seeing if they can complete the joke, as we did in a live game a while back.


Kangaroo words

How many times have you looked at a word and seen the smaller words spelled out lurking inside it? Plenty, I’d bet. Well, these words are known as kangaroo words (or marsupial words), and finding the words hidden inside can be a puzzly game in itself.

Let’s look at a word like ANATOMICAL. This is definitely a kangaroo word, since you can see ATOM, MIC, and MICA reading out in order, as well as other words like ANT, ANTI, AMI, TOIL, and NAIL reading out by skipping the occasional letter.

Just imagine how many you could find in SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS!


Anagrams, Aptigrams, and Antigrams

Finally, you can’t have a post about wordplay without talking about anagrams. An anagram rearranges the letters in a word or phrase to make other words or phrases. LEAST anagrams into STEAL, STALE, SLATE, TALES, TESLA, and others, for instance.

But there are more ambitious variations of anagrams out there for enterprising puzzlers to uncover. Two diabolical ones are aptigrams and antigrams.

Aptigrams, as you might expect if you’re a portmanteau pro, are anagrams that are particularly apt descriptions of a given word or phrase.

For instance, CLINT EASTWOOD anagrams into OLD WEST ACTION and ALEC GUINNESS anagrams into GENUINE CLASS. Both are terrific examples of aptigrams. (Friend of the blog Keith Yarbrough conjured up another good one: GEORGE BUSH anagrams into HE BUGS GORE.)

Antigrams can be a bit more challenging, since these anagrams bear the opposite meaning of the original word. FUNERAL, for instance, becomes REAL FUN and ANTAGONIST becomes NOT AGAINST.


What are your favorite forms of wordplay, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know and they might become the subject of a future post or puzzle game on the blog!

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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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