Words & Stuff

vvv: My Favorite Things

(24 October 1999)

In "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," Borges describes a Chinese encyclopedia called the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into these classes:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor
  2. embalmed ones
  3. those that are trained
  4. suckling pigs
  5. mermaids
  6. fabulous ones
  7. stray dogs
  8. those included in this classification
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. innumerable ones
  11. those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush
  12. others
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase
  14. those that resemble flies from a distance.

John Wilkins attempted, in the 1600s, to classify everything in an organized-by-concept dictionary; apparently the classifications of Roget's original Thesaurus were partly derived from Wilkins' work. Classifications and categories can be useful if chosen well; the problem of creating a useful taxonomy or set of categories is related to the problem of indexing. But at present I'm concerned not with useful taxonomies but with entertainments involving categories.

Sei Shonagon, in tenth-century Japan, wrote a book known as The Pillow Book. In it she included 164 lists of things, including:
Annoying Things
Awkward Things
Depressing Things
Elegant Things
Embarrassing Things
Hateful Things
Pleasing Things
Rare Things
Shameful Things
Splendid Things
Squalid Things
Surprising and Distressing Things
Things That Are Near Though Distant
Things That Are Unpleasant to See
Things That Cannot Be Compared
Things That Gain by Being Painted
Things That Give a Clean Feeling
Things That Give a Pathetic Impression
Things That Give an Unclean Feeling
Things That Have Lost Their Power
Things That Make One's Heart Beat Faster
Things That One Is in a Hurry to See or Hear
Things That Should Be Large
Things That Should Be Short
Unsuitable Things

(I can't resist quoting one of Shonagon's Hateful Things: "A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything." Perhaps I'll adopt that as my motto... Here are two other section titles:
Men Really Have Strange Emotions
It Is Absurd of People to Get Angry)

The television game show The $10,000 Pyramid (later revived with other dollar amounts) included a categories game. It was a two-person game: one person could see a category like "Things that are blue" or "Things found in pockets"; that person, the clue-giver, would give examples of items in the category, trying to get the other person to say the name of the category. So the clue-giver might say "oceans, the sky, suede shoes..." and the clue-receiver would simultaneously keep trying to guess the category: "Things that are wet. Things that are deep. Things that appear in songs." And so on.

High school friends of mine used to improvise rapid-fire category lists as if they were the clue-receiver receiving a random list of clue words. They would rattle off a string of categories: "Things that glow in the dark. Things you hear in class. Things you can see with your eyes closed. Things police confiscate. Things that go bump in the night." And so on. When done well, this can be very entertaining, especially if you're as easily amused as we were.

If you can come up with good categories (not necessarily starting with "things"), you can play a different game with them: it's called "Categories." Several players (6-7 works well) sit in a circle. The first player names a category, such as "places" or "things with feet"; each other player writes something that fits in this category on a sheet of paper, then hands the paper to the first player. Once all the papers are in, the first player reads all the items aloud, two or three times (because the list can't be repeated once play begins). Beginning with the person to the left of the first player, each player (except the first player) attempts to guess which other player submitted any one of the items. If the guess is wrong, play passes to the left. If the guess is correct, the person guessed is out of this round, and the guesser guesses again. The last remaining person wins. The next round, there's a new first player. Players often attempt to interpret the category in cleverly odd ways, but this approach can backfire; if you have a reputation for clever/silly interpretations, others are likely to match you with your chosen item more quickly.

In the following example, Ilsa is first player; her category was "plants." Everyone has written an item on a piece of paper and passed the papers to Ilsa.

Ilsa [reading]: Tree; daffodil; nuclear power; pine tree; Russian. Again, slowly: [she repeats the list].

Jan [to Ilsa's left]: Hmm. I think Lemuel wrote "Russian."

Lemuel: Nope.

[Play passes to Jan's left.]

Katrina: I think Jan wrote "tree." [Jan sighs and nods; he's now out of this round.] So I go again. Lemuel, "daffodil"?

Lemuel: Nope. My turn. Ned, "daffodil"? [Ned nods and is out.] Katrina, "Russian"? [She nods and is out.] ...That leaves Marlene. I remember my word, but I don't remember the other remaining word! Damn. I have to pass.

Marlene: Ha! I remember both the remaining words; the one that's not mine must be yours: "nuclear power." [Lemuel grumbles, but nods.] I win!

Ned: No fair -- I didn't even get to guess!

Jan: My turn to pick a category.

...And so on. Sometimes in Categories some remarkable synchronicities happen, like the "South American countries" round in which four of the six players independently picked "Uruguay," or the "Brothers" round in which three out of four picked "Luke Skywalker"...

Some recommended categories from Jim and David: Punchlines; Something you're afraid of; Least successful flavor of ice cream; Homonyms; Silly thing that you want [the first player] to have to say out loud; Name of someone in this room; Kitchen utensil; Onomatopoeias; Numbers; Lengths; Brand name; Song lyric; Flammable object; Sex toy.

The Shonagon lists are from the Ivan Morris translation, as quoted in a variety of places (mostly on the Web). The Borges animal categories are likewise from quotations on the Web; I haven't had a chance to look up the original essay (it might be in the new volume of Borges' Selected Non-Fictions). The John Wilkins information comes from the Web and Encyclopedia Britannica. Recommended categories provided by Jim Moskowitz and David Van Stone. Jim also provided the description of Categories that I based my description on.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>