Words & Stuff

dd: From Dodgson to Dodo

(25 January 1998)

Electronic dictionaries make it quick and easy to look things up. You don't have to search through thousands of pages to find your word; you don't even have to know the order of the alphabet. Some electronic dictionaries will even correct your spelling if you spell your word wrong.

Unfortunately, electronic dictionaries also eliminate the joy of browsing. I've come across some remarkable words as I leafed through a paper dictionary trying to find a particular word. And sometimes in passing I'll notice a word that I'd been meaning to look up, or a word I've known for years without ever being quite sure of its meaning. And my method of choosing a word for a game of fictionary usually consists of flipping through a dictionary at random until an unusual word catches my attention.

Electronic dictionaries eliminate certain other dictionary games altogether. Here's one such from Terri Walton -- a sort of found-art game deriving from the rules of alphabetical order and the vagaries of paper-dictionary page layout:

We called [this game] "dic-wits," which is short for "dictionary witticisms." You have to find [a pair of guide words] at the top of the dictionary page that makes a humorous phrase. This worked especially well in our case since we all had different dictionaries.

Some samples from the original players:

I've only found a few examples of my own so far (using two different dictionaries):

For added fun, provide a definition to go with the phrase:

You could turn this into a guessing game by providing a clue or definition and the letters that overlap in the two words. For instance:

One who takes '80s youth music very seriously: pu-- pu---- (answer)

On a related note, my copy of The American Heritage Dictionary (third edition, trade paperback) includes illustrations on many pages. A page with two illustrations usually has the two right next to each other; presumably this layout was chosen for simplicity and to take up less space on the page, but the juxtaposition often gives the impression of comparative "how to tell these two items apart" illustrations. For instance (you'll have to imagine the associated pictures):

Though I hadn't previously encountered the game of dic-wits, I had enjoyed similar pastimes with the telephone book, especially the Yellow Pages. Among other top-of-page guide entries in my local directory:

Another paper-dictionary-only game (this one probably wouldn't work as well with a telephone book) is for one player to say a word and everyone else to guess what the next main entry in the dictionary is. (Choose a specific dictionary as arbiter ahead of time, of course.) If you want to keep score, give one point for each main entry that comes between the given word and the word a player guesses; lowest number of points wins.

Of course, it would be possible to write computer programs to use an electronic dictionary to play any of these games. But somehow, the entertainment value is lower when you have to explicitly impose the game structure on the raw data, rather than simply taking advantage of the structure already present for other reasons.

On the other hand, electronic dictionaries may provide diversions that you can't play with a paper dictionary. For instance, the Merriam-Webster dictionary on the Web provides a list of guesses for any word that it doesn't know; that list, like recommendations by a spellchecker, could be the starting point for all sorts of entertaining activities.


Reader comments and addenda page


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>