Fun and Games with the English Language
Dr. Phillip M. Feldman
The English language seems to add new words, and new meanings for existing words, on an almost daily basis. Readers who are sober will probably agree with me that things have gotten out of hand. But, this proliferation of words and meanings can be a source of entertainment.
This portion of my website is divided into sections as follows:
The intent of this material is to mainly to amuse, but I'm not above getting on my hobbyhorse in defense of good usage and common sense.
Let me begin by clarifying the difference between semantic drift and semantic deterioration. Semantic drift refers to gradual changes in the meanings of words and phrases. An example is the word dumb, which originally meant lacking the power of speech, but is now offensive in this sense when used in reference to humans because the word has come to mean stupid. A more colorful example is the phrase making love, which a century ago refered to courtship. (See the essay The Lost Language of Love and Courtship). Semantic drift is a process that affects all human languages, and that to some degree reflects technological and social changes in the larger culture; opposing this drift would be much like opposing tectonic drift.
Semantic deterioration is the process by which the meanings of words and expressions become adulturated or watered-down to the point where they lose their expressive power. Words and phrases that are overused initially lose their potency and finally become cliches, but this is not what I refer to here. Rather, I'm concerned with the tendency of words and expressions to acquire new meanings that either conflict with the original ones, or that create ambiguity because the intended meaning cannot be deduced from the context. Such ambiguities can cause a word to fall out of use; dilettante, which originally meant a serious student of an art or science, but now also means a dabbler, is an example of this phenomenon. Particularly disturbing (OK, that's a big too strong) is the increasing use of the word irony to refer to surprising coincidence rather than to (a) saying the opposite of what one means (for effect, rather than by accident) or (b) mockery.
The words and expressions that one uses, as well as how one uses them,
identify one's education and social status. But, fighting semantic
deterioration is not about snobbery. It's about retaining the ability to convey
precise meaning with economy of words. If we lose this fight, English will
become the Newspeak of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Note: This subsection was started July 29, 2017, and is in development.
When naming (a person or thing), one should avoid unintended secondary meanings, as in the following examples:
An urban renewal program should not be called Mend a City. (Mendacity is the tendency to lie).
Mr. and Mrs. Lane should not give the name Tamar to their daughter. (Tamerlane was a notorious Turkik/Mongol conqueror).
My father once suggested that a friend with the last name Faucet name his son Leakey, after the famous paleontologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey.
Answers to these questions appear at the end of this page.
Unscramble the letters foovillfee to make an intelligible three-word phrase.
There are four English adjectives—one of these is also a noun—that have related verb forms such that an i in the adjectival form changes to an e in the verb form. The most obscure of the four is tepid tepefy, where tepefy means to make tepid. What are the other three?
What is the most common three-letter prefix in the English dictionary?
Starting with the word cent, add a two-letter prefix and a two-letter suffix such that the resulting 8-letter word can be viewed as a grammatical derivative of either of two different 6-letter words. The 8-letter word has two entirely different meanings, one having to do with a relationship in time, and the other involving a change of location.
Rearrange the letters of the word partisan to form the single anagram of that word.
How many five-letter English words contain exactly four vowels? Identify as many as you can. (Assume that the letter y counts as a consonant when it appears at the start of the word, and as a vowel in any other position). Note: If you are working on this question without using a computer and find at least eight valid words, your answer gets full credit.
How many palindromic English words are there having at least four letters? Identify as many as you can. (A palindromic word is one that reads the same forwards and backwards). Note: If you are working on this question without using a computer and find at least ten valid words, your answer gets full credit.
Find all English words that contain at least one m, at least one n, and any number of a's, i's, and o's.
Find all English words that contain exactly one n, exactly two t's, and at most one of each vowel letter.
Contributions to the following list of English homophones (and to the other lists) are welcome. Anyone who contributes 20 or more valid homophones will have his/her name added to the list of contributors at the top of the file. (Your homophones must meet the criteria specified at the top of the file).
False antonyms (pseudoantonyms) are pairs of words that give the misleading impression that they have opposite meanings, usually because of the prefixes, but occasionally because of the absence of a prefix on one of the two or because of a suffix on one. Likewise, false synonyms (pseudosynonyms) are pairs of words that give the misleading impression that they have the same or at least similar meanings. I started collecting false antonyms in the late 1990's, possibly inspired by Richard Lederer's famous quip, If pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress?
There is an enormous variety of types of word puzzles; someone is probably inventing a new type of word puzzle as you read this. I've focused my efforts in the area of word puzzle solvers primarily on three types of word puzzles:
Anagrams: The goal of these puzzles is to arrange given letters to form a word or sometimes a phrase.
Letter frequency puzzles: Information is provided about the number of times each distinct letter appears in a word; frequencies may be provided for specific letters, unnamed letters, or a combination of the two. The goal is to find a word or all words that satisfy the specified frequencies.
Word pattern puzzles: Information is provided about the pattern of letters appearing in a word, e.g., the letters in specific locations may be identified, or one may be told that the word consists of a sequence of alternating vowels and consonants. The goal is to find a word or all words that match the specified pattern. Hangman can be considered a form of word pattern puzzle in which information is provided incrementally as the player guesses letters.
Many word puzzles are best solved by writing a small computer program, and there are many word games for which a program can be written to advise a player. Prime examples are anagrams, Boggle, hangman, and Scrabble. Such programs are typically written using Python (or Perl, for those programmers who do not yet appreciate the overwhelming superiority of Python). For an introduction to the Python programming language, see my Python Language Resources page. As time allows, I will add more downloadable Python scripts.
If you are developing your own scripts for solving word puzzles and need advice, or would like to have one of your scripts posted on this page, send me e-mail: email@example.com. Any scripts submitted for posting should be thoroughly documented and reasonably bug-free.
Boggle is a popular word game played with 16 dice labeled with one letter of the alphabet on each side. (Because the letter q is almost always followed by u in English, one face of one of the Boggle dice is labeled with qu). The dice are shaken and dropped randomly into a four-by-four grid so that only the letters on the top faces are visible. The objective is to find sequences of adjacent letters (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent) that form English words. Boggle can be an excellent vehicle for helping children to learn new words.
The Python program
Boggle.py is a Boggle solver, i.e., it finds
all words on the specified Boggle board. The sequence of letters may be
specified via the command line. If it is not specified via the command line,
the program prompts the user to specify the sequence of letters. Starting with
code written by Scott Hillman, I made the following changes:
I fixed the handling of the letter q.
I made some minor improvements to the user interface.
I created an online version.
If you do not have a Python interpreter on your computer and don't want to install one, you can run the Boggle solver online (i.e., on the server) by entering the configuration of the board into the form below, selecting one of the two spelling dictionaries, and then clicking on the button below the form. Note:
Use the tab key on your keyboard to advance from one board position to the next.
If you have a die with the letters qu on it, you may enter either q or qu.
Calculating the probability that a specified word appears on a random Boggle board is an interesting mathematical exercise. (One could estimate this probability via simulation).
The Hangman Advisor provides advice to someone who is trying to guess the hidden word in Hangman. It analyzes the template and recommends the next letter to be guessed, using four different algorithms.
The Python program
palindromes.py finds all palindromic words
having a specified minimum length. A palindromic word is one that reads the same
forwards and backwards.
Word Match is a game for building vocabulary, loosely based on the game of hangman.
There are two reasonable answers: love of life and life of
love. (I prefer the first answer). These can be found by running
liquid liquefy, stupid stupefy, and putrid putrefy.
The most common three-letter prefix in the English dictionary is either con or non, depending on which definition of prefix one applies. (See Common word prefixes above).
By prepending re and appending er to cent, we obtain recenter, which can be understood as either recent-er (a relationship in time) or re-center (a change of location).
The only anagram of partisan is aspirant.
The large spelling dictionary contains 33 five-letter words each having exactly 4 vowels:
'aalii', 'abaya', 'adieu', 'aecia', 'aerie', 'aioli', 'aliya', 'aquae', 'areae', 'audio', 'aurae', 'aurei', 'bayou', 'cooee', 'cooey', 'eerie', 'eyrie', 'gooey', 'hooey', 'looey', 'looie', 'louie', 'miaou', 'oidia', 'oorie', 'ourie', 'oxeye', 'payee', 'poyou', 'queue', 'sooey', 'uraei', 'zoeae'
I obtained this answer by running the program
the large spelling dictionary.
There are 51 palindromic words of length 4 and greater:
'abba', 'alula', 'anna', 'boob', 'civic', 'deed', 'deified', 'deked', 'deled', 'denned', 'dewed', 'halalah', 'hallah', 'kaiak', 'kayak', 'keek', 'kook', 'level', 'madam', 'marram', 'minim', 'naan', 'noon', 'otto', 'peep', 'poop', 'pullup', 'radar' , 'redder', 'refer', 'reifier', 'repaper', 'reviver', 'rotator', 'rotor', 'sagas', 'sees', 'selles', 'sememes', 'semes', 'seres', 'sexes', 'shahs', 'solos', 'stets', 'succus', 'sulus', 'tenet', 'terret', 'toot', 'torot'
I obtained this answer by running the program
against the large spelling dictionary.
There are 22 solutions:
'amain', 'amino', 'amnia', 'anima', 'animi', 'imino', 'main', 'man', 'mana', 'mania', 'mano', 'min', 'mina', 'mini', 'moan', 'mon', 'mono', 'moon', 'nim', 'nom', 'noma', 'nomoi'
I found these by running
hangman.py as follows and then
deleting all results that did not contain both an m and an n:
python hangman.py mnaaaaaiiiiiooooo
There are 13 words that satisfy these conditions:
'attune', 'nett', 'notate', 'nutate', 'taint', 'tanto', 'taunt', 'tauten', 'tent', 'tenuti', 'tenuto', 'tint', and 'titan'
These can be found by running
frequencies.py as follows:
python frequencies.py n:1,t:2,a:?,e:?,i:?,o:?,u:?
29 March, 2014: I've ironed out bugs that were affecting the Hangman Advisor's depth-2 search. The results that it reports look reasonable, but I have not yet figured out a good way to validate that the code is working correctly.
22 March, 2014: I've implemented a preliminary version of the long-awaited Hangman Advisor (see above). This was not terribly difficult to write, but the code ended up being somewhat larger than anticipated.
11 August, 2013: I've more or less completed work on the Word Match game, adding hints for all of the puzzles, completing a major scrub of the template database, and fixing scoring. Over half of the puzzles make use of SAT- and GRE-level words in the hint text, the answer itself, or both.
2 May, 2013: While passing time in a doctor's office, I struck up an acquaintance with two siblings, ages 7 and 10. We started solving some word puzzles, and on one of them, they found a solution—the word toad—that the solver did not generate (because this word did not appear in the small spelling dictionary). It was explained to me that toad is a very important word: "There is a ride at Disneyland called Mr. Toad's Wild Ride". I updated the dictionary on the spot and demonstrated that the solver now produced the word toad. I cite this incident as evidence that I am responsive to my customers.
27 April 2013: After inching up for weeks, my page "Fun and Games with the English Language" reached Google rank #1 for the quoted search "solving word puzzles".
Last update: 29 July, 2017