Wordplay involves perceiving patterns where none were expected. Pattern matching is a hallmark of intelligence. It is at the root of science and art. Much of thinking is really just finding the underlying pattern. Perceiving patterns is pleasing. Even when we watch random processes like ocean waves or flames in a log fire, the brain is unconsciously trying to perceive a pattern.
My parents prepared me for a life of puzzling when I was a young child. My mother bought me activity books, beginning with dot-to-dot puzzles. That set me on a path of investigating where numbers could take me, and what numbers could show me. I graduated to mazes, which taught me that to solve a problem, one often needs to try out different paths, some of which lead to dead ends, but one of which can lead to a successful answer.
Word puzzlers are inductive creatures, going from bits of information to a bigger whole. Just as a good scientist has knowledge and experience to direct them down a path that is more likely to be a productive one rather than a dead end, a good word puzzler can assess whether a path will be a fruitful one, leading to a solution (or even the construction of a “good” puzzle).
Word puzzles improve vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and communication skills, boost memory, and enhance cognitive and analytical skills. By improving your problem-solving skills, you may also improve your performance at work and in other areas of life. They can be a positive factor for your mental health, because focusing your attention on a puzzle can aid relaxation, ward off anxiety, and keep your emotions under control. After all, how can you think negative thoughts when you’re concentrating on a puzzle? And, doesn’t it feel fantastic when you solve a puzzle?
The rebus is a form of wordplay with a long tradition. Its roots are ancient, and it has been reinvented in modern times. In a rebus, letters, syllables, words, numbers, and other symbols are used to represent a letter, a word, a phrase, or an even longer message. Rebuses can be deciphered or interpreted by sounding out letters, analyzing the locations of letters in relation to other letters, examining the appearance of letters, or “reading” words in special ways. In linguistics, representing text in this matter is called the rebus principle.
Aside from the endless hours of wordplay fun, anagrams do have some practical uses. You can use them for:
Informal encryption: Replace each word (or line) of your document with its anagram. There are much more formal and better ciphers out there, but this is a quick informal method.
Generating passwords: We’re told that it’s a good idea to have a separate password for each email account, online account, etc.; however, it’s difficult having to remember all those passwords. Try using anagrams of favourite words or phrases as passwords.
Generating mnemonics: Anagram the initials of the five Great Lakes—Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario—to spell HOMES, an easy-to-remember mnemonic.
“Cryptic” comes from the Greek kryptos, “hidden,” and means “secret, mysterious, occult, or serving to conceal.” The chemical element krypton was given that name because it stayed concealed for so long until its discovery. (The creators of Superman adapted the word to kryptonite, the substance that weakens the otherwise invulnerable hero.) The dictionary definition of “cryptic” also says “employing cipher or code.” So now we ask, what are ciphers and codes, and what’s the difference?
In this chapter we will look at numbers as words, not just as mathematical ideas. Numbers are also lexicographical creations. Numbers have names. The numeral “one” is written as a vertical line, but the word “one” is written as O-N-E. Where did the O come from, especially when considering how we pronounce ONE? It looks like it should rhyme with BONE, CONE, HONE, LONE, PONE, SONE, TONE, and ZONE. But it doesn’t; it rhymes with DONE and NONE. Incidentally, none of these rhyme with G-O-N-E (GONE). Sheesh! It was the Normans (remember William the Conqueror, of Normandy, France). They made all kinds of changes to English spelling, including substituting O for U in certain words such as come and one. If you think about the French equivalent, un, you get a clue about the origin of the word we know as one.
I know what you’re thinking; is the word lipogram related to lipids and liposuction? Does it mean you are trying to remove unwanted “fat” from a word? Nice try, but no. The latter comes from the Greek lipos meaning “grease or fat.” The former comes from the Greek lipo-, meaning “lacking,” plus gramma meaning something written or drawn. So, the Greek lipogrammatos means “lacking a letter.” (Liposuction is not a viable way to remove a letter!)