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The flexibility of English makes it a treasure chest full of wit, wisdom, and whimsy

Scrabble tiles

"Wit consists in knowing the resemblance of things which differ, and the difference of things which are alike." – Mme. De Stael.

Anyone who makes a living from writing English will come to enjoy the many ways our language can be transformed into clever, ingenious, witty, and pleasurable forms of wordplay.

One of the oldest of these plays on words is the pun, which has been indulged in by writers, poets, and playwrights for at least the past six centuries. Shakespeare's plays are riddled with thousands of puns, much more than the books of other famous authors who punned a lot, including Lewis Carroll and James Joyce. Even Jane Austen got in the occasional pun, as when one of her heroines complained that "My home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. I saw enough of Rears and Vices."

The pun, however, is still widely scorned as the feeblest form of humour. This is mainly because so many people's desperate attempts at punning produce so many "groaners." Stephen Leacock deplored "the social nuisance of the inveterate punster, who follows conversations as a shark follows a ship."

I have to confess to a predilection for puns myself, but in my defense I contend that quite a few of them have been well above the "groaner" level. I could spend the next thousand words quoting some of them, but maybe a few examples will suffice.

  • While working for the Montreal Gazette in the mid-1950s, I covered some baseball games at Delormier Stadium, home to the Montreal Royals, then a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Renovations of the stadium were supposed to have been completed before the baseball season started, but nearly a third of the washrooms were still closed, leading to long lineups. Frustrated fans forced to miss key hits and plays were understandably furious. In a suffix to my writeup of the game, I offered this advice to the fans: "All you have to do is bring your own relief pitchers."
  • While a few friends and I were visiting New York, we strolled past the city's magnificent public library, on each side of which stands the huge statue of a lion. My friends were puzzled. "What do lions have to do with a library," they asked. "Surely the answer is obvious," I said. "The statues are there for the benefit of library patrons who like to read between the lions."
  • In the condominium of garden homes where I live, there used to be a problem with some owners who walked their dogs but didn't clean up their poop. Other residents who inadvertently stepped into piles of excrement bombarded the condominium board with complaints. As the editor of the condo's newsletter, I scolded the culprits and demanded that they do the requisite poop-scooping. The editorial had the desired effect, but maybe it was because of the heading I put on it: "We're having too many close encounters of the turd kind!"

By far the most popular word games are the crossword puzzle and Scrabble, both of which have millions of adherents. I spend at least 10 or 12 hours a week playing Scrabble on my computer, and my wife and I jointly complete the Ottawa Citizen's daily crossword after breakfast every morning.

Crossword puzzles range from the relatively simple to the very difficult, from those with straightforward definitions to those loaded with the most esoteric verbal twists. In his superb book on English, The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson marvels at the complexity of British crosswords, which he says are "infinitely more fiendish" than the American versions, "demanding mastery of puns, anagrams, palindromes, and whatever else springs into the deviser's devious mind."

Bryson cites several examples of this wordplay challenge from the London Times, one of which offered the clue "An important city in Czechoslovakia" to fill just four squares in the puzzle. Of course there is no such four-letter-word city in that country, but there is one in the country's name -- CzechOSLOvakia -- the capital of Norway.

You have to have an especially crafty mind to tackle and solve such convoluted crosswords, and there are indeed many people who are brainy enough to do so. (I'm not one of them.) Bryson refers to an Englishman named Roy Dean, who completes the London Times's crossword in a matter of minutes, no matter how complex it may be. "Under test conditions, he once solved a Times crossword in just 3 minutes and 45 seconds."

Anagrams used to be a popular game, too, but Scrabble has virtually eclipsed it. Like Scrabble, it provides 200 or more letter tiles, which players blindly draw one at a time out of a bag. As they each start composing words, opponents can capture them by adding one or more letters, often rearranging them in the process to form a different word. My mother was a whiz at Anagrams while my brothers and sisters and I were growing up, and still beat us four games out of five after we reached our late teens and early 20s. It's still a fun game to play, even with Scrabble tiles.

Another kind of anagram game consists of simply jumbling the letters of a name or set or words to form a new but ideally relevant phrase. My wife and I enjoy unscrambling the Jumble puzzles that accompany the daily crosswords. Bryson gives a few examples:

Ronald Wilson Reagan becomes Insane Anglo Warlord
Western Union = no wire unsent
The Morse Code = Here come dots
Victoria, England’s Queen = governs a nice quiet land
William Shakespeare = I am a weakish speller

Next to Scrabble and crosswords, the most difficult form of wordplay is the palindrome, which involves reversing the letters in a sentence or phrase so as to create a different and preferably relevant alternative. Most attempts at palindromes fall far short of producing the desired effect, but a few of the shorter ones are impressive:

The first man introduces himself to the first woman: MADAM, I'M ADAM.
Napoleon’s lament: ABLE WAS I ERE I SAW ELBA.
By far the most brilliant palindrome was this tribute to Ferdinand de Lesseps, builder of the Panama Canal: A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL, PANAMA!

And then there's the rebus, an almost forgotten form of wordplay in which seemingly unconnected words are arranged in a way that, if properly deciphered, make sense. My favourite consists of three words stacked on top of one another:

WOOD
JOHN
MASS

These three words, aligned this way, were written on an envelope that was sent to the U.S. Post Office. Believe it or not, the name and address were deciphered by an unusually bright (and obviously not that busy) postal worker, who had the letter delivered to John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts.

Although I'm now a nonagenarian, I can still read, write, and enjoy the many pleasures of the English tongue -- mainly, I think, because I keep exercising my mind. That may not be a guaranteed deterrent to the onset of Alzheimer's, on its own, but many psychiatrists seem convinced that, the more active the intellect, the less likely it is to succumb to dementia.

In any case, I urge readers of all ages who don't play word games to give them a try. You'll find that becoming addicted to crossword puzzles and Scrabble is more intellectually stimulating than the current addiction to digital hi-tech games and devices -- and certainly far, far preferable to getting hooked on narcotics.

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