THERE’S English and all the rest of the languages on this planet.
Then there are the private languages.
I refer not to the secret codes between married couples, the telegraphic signals between longtime business associates, the hints of conspirators or the specialized jargon of sports, sciences and other fields.
I refer to Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
Truly, in their universe, words that no one knows, no one uses, no one understands, no one reads, no one sees, qualify.
There’s actually a Scrabble dictionary, devised for professional Scrabble competitions. It includes thousands of combinations of letters — I won’t call them words — that qualify under Scrabble.
So the next time you get a crazy Scrabble hand, fret not. Just recall those thousands of “words” in the Scrabble dictionary — you’ll have to remember them, because under Scrabble rules you’re not allowed to look them up as you play.
Perhaps not so extreme, but definitely unrelated to language as it is spoken, read or written, are some words that frequently show up in crossword puzzles. “Roe,” I remember from my childhood encounter with crossword puzzles. It means “fish eggs.” I do consider myself a reasonably educated person, but pity me and my delusion. I do not recall having seen “roe” used once in the hundreds of books and tens of thousands of articles I’ve read since childhood.
But there it is, making its frequent appearance in the crossword puzzles: roe. Right up there with the stock-and-trade of everyday English.
Add to “roe” more gems, such as “ague” and “epea” and “olio” and “lea” (and its competitor, “lei”) and “koi” (the latter is Japanese pond carp, in case you’re wondering); followed closely by words that actually do get used, but, judging from their frequency in the puzzles, you’d think they were as common as “yes” and “no”: “Emu,” for instance, or “ale,” “erg,” “ode,” “ems” and “ooh.”
(By the way, — is an “em” dash. – is an “en” dash. - is a hyphen. None of this is to be confused with cee, which follows, you guessed it, b. Or with ell, which is a right angle. Lesson of the day from your local crossword puzzle.)
Then there are the stretches. The word is a fine word, but the puzzle’s description is really off. How, for example, is “chopped” supposed to describe “hewn”? In such cases of far-out association, you really should get a reward for not guessing right.
Which goes to show that if you enjoy Scrabble, enjoy it. But don’t play under the illusion that if you really concentrate on it, and its private dictionary, it will develop your vocabulary.
If you enjoy crosswords, do them. They can challenge the brain and test your knowledge of trivia, popular culture and odd associations. But again, please don’t do them under the illusion they will develop your working vocabulary or power to be articulate, orally or in writing.
STILL, for all their inadequacies and illusions, word games do speak to the uniqueness of the human condition: the capacity to communicate in a sophisticated way. Animals don’t play word games.
Not to mention, word games exercise the mind, not a small thing as the population ages and becomes susceptible to mental deterioration.
Just one thing. Get a grip. Don’t be depressed when that Scrabble hand just won’t yield some funny word or that crossword puzzle entry doesn’t seem to demand any word in the common usage. The fact that you haven’t memorized the Scrabble dictionary or perfected the private language of the crossword puzzle is a sign or neither sin nor incompetence.
It is, after all, as they say about the Super Bowl if war is raging elsewhere, just a game.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News