Wordplay

posted by SWC on July 6th, 2008 · 1 Comment | | Printer Friendly Version

While waiting for my train at Pleasantville the other day, I did what I often do to relieve boredom: I look for words using letters in the rectangular station sign. The longer the word the more credit I allow myself. I have found numerous seven-letter words, but not many eight-letter words, excluding the obvious “pleasant.” This time a nine-letter word showed up, almost immediately. At home, using a handy anagram site I found two other nine-letter words by asking for anagrams of one word each based on the word I found at the Pleasantville station. If you make no restrictions for anagrams of “Pleasantville” you learn that there are 12,146 including, near the top, “vanilla pestle” and “pastille navel.” Pastille navels? Who’ll take a dozen? I’ll get back to the nine-letter words, but first I’d like to tell you about a childhood experience that you might think would have turned me against anagram-hunting for the rest of my life.

Entrants in a Sears, Roebuck and Company competition long ago were required to list as many words as they could from letters in the phrase “Sears Toyland.” The prizes were glorious, heavenly kid stuff. I can’t tell you how many late summer afternoons I spent in a corner of the Paterson Public Library, Main Branch, scanning Webster or how many pages of yellow lined paper I filled, but I can tell you that I expected to win. What went wrong? Sears wouldn’t tell me. I never got a form letter thanking me for entering their contest or pointing out that I at least led the other contestants in misspellings. And what happened to my hundreds of words? Were they cast to the winds like the gold dust in The Treasure of Sierra Madre?

Notwithstanding the Sears disappointment, or because of it, I became a logophile, avoiding logophobia and logorrhea. (When will I have another opportunity to use each of these words in one sentence?) I do believe, to paraphrase Babe Paley, that one can never know too many words or be too sparing in their use. Why not “lexiphile” or “lexophile”? My Unabridged Random House Dictionary (URHD) Second Edition, has no place for them, and is not at all amused by their presumption, but if you search for them online you may be entertained. If you own a URHD or know where to find one you might wander along the trail of word elements beginning with “lex-” and “logo-” and stop off, say, at “logogriph.” I would like a logogriph to refer to a fabled monster, usually having the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a word. (Think Dictionary Game.) That word, however, is defined as an anagram or similar word puzzle. Speaking of anagrams, what was the nine-letter word I found in “Pleasantville”? That word was “antisleep” which appears along with a list of words prefixed by “anti” in the URHD. It is easy for me to see why this word had been so elusive. I am lucky to get more than four hours of sleep a night.

Many of the words that appeal to me are the ones that I have had to look up several times. These could be grouped under what Adrian Room called “confusibles” which he compiled in a useful and diverting dictionary. My personal list would include captious, factious, factitious, factive, factitive, fractious, and you can throw in tendentious. The last, if I recall correctly, was a favorite word of Lionel Trilling, who was probably the best-dressed professor ever to teach at Columbia University.

I will return soon, perhaps accompanied by some of my favorite (Pessoan) heteronyms; this lot would include my indexing mentor, Philo del Sorto, as well as the always helpful George Tuesday and June Bissell.

One comment

  1. I’m absolute rubbish at anagrams and word games of that sort. I’m OK-ish at Scrabble but I tend not to play at home because my parents are bloodthirsty Scrabble players who take no prisoners.

    Is the URHD Second Edition your dictionary of choice or do you have different ones for different uses? I used to work with editor at Cambridge – another Sidney though spelled differently – who took on a book about Webster’s Third. I ended up working on the marketing for the book and thought the story of the dictionary itself was quite interesting. I’m not sure that Webster’s Third would be my dictionary of choice though. I am far too attached to my OED.

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