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Welcome to the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, swap your cow for five magic linguistic beans.
Coming up in the show: word games! To prepare yourself for which, here’s a game word, sponsored by Hello Fresh. Right, game as in the genre of meat is so called because it was obtained through the game or sport of hunting. This history lurks in the word ‘venison’, which evolved from the Latin ‘venari’, to hunt, through the Old French ‘venesoun’, which meant the meat of a large game animal. There’s the clue as to why the animal is called a deer until, upon the point it’s being eaten, it’s venison. Same with cows and beef, pigs and pork, sheep and mutton. The words for the creatures in their living state are the Anglo-Saxon ones; the meat words originated from French. After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, there came a few hundred years in which the aristocracy were speaking French, and they were the ones who could afford to eat the meat.
So there you go. Meat words, brought to you by Hello Fresh. I don’t think there’s any game in their easy to prepare meal kits, but every week there are new delicious step-by-step recipes for meat eaters and vegetarians, with the exact amount of fresh ingredients boxed up and delivered to your door. Allusionist listeners in the USA can get three free meals in their first box, plus free delivery: visit hellofresh.com/allusion.
On with the show.
Gather round, children; Grandma’s got a story about how we had to make our own fun on long boring journeys before there were iPads. Or indeed no equipment at all, beyond a vocabulary - because who hasn’t had to while away hours stuck in a car or a bus or a train playing word games? What fun: I Spy - where you’re really just listing boring things; or The Minister’s Cat, where you’re listing adjectives; the Numberplate Game, where you have to list phrases or people that start with the same letters as the numberplate of the car you’re stuck behind in a traffic jam; or replacing words in songs with rude ones; or the old family favourite, guess how many words you can say before the driver shouts at you to shut up and you have to sit in silence for two hours. Bonus points if you got beyond four.
Now, I’ve always had a problem with these games, which is that none of them are actually much fun to play. Except for the replacing words in a song with rude words; that’s still good.
But really, most of these word games are about as fun as filling in a spreadsheet. They do fulfil the function of obliterating an awkward silence, without everyone having to think about conversational topics; but the prize isn’t so much winning the game, as the journey being over so you don’t have to play any more.
Also, words are all over the bloody place. On the average day, you’ll be deploying or taking in many thousands. So, how do you take these things which are ubiquitous and concoct fun out of them? What are the elements of a top notch word game?
LS: A bit of viciousness!
HZ: That’s Leslie Scott, founder of Oxford Games. She has created more than forty games, several of which are word-based, such as Anagrams, where you compile anagrams at speed; the children’s literature game Bookworm, and the bluffing games Flummoxed, Inspiration and Ex Libris. But she’s probably best known for a non-word game: the build-a-precarious-tower-out-of-wooden-bricks game of Jenga.
LS: A game has to be competitive, otherwise it should be called a different kind of pastime.
LS: There are companies that disagree with me, they make cooperative games. Jenga is the most cooperative game that I know, but it still has an element that somebody loses. If you don’t have that element, it just becomes another pastime, not a game.
HZ: So you need to bring out people’s malevolent side.
LS: I think so.
HZ: And the element of jeopardy of the possibility of becoming the worst person in the room.
LS: Yes. [laughs]
HZ: Several of Leslie’s games involve bluffing. In Flummoxed, you have to write a definition for a word from a foreign language; and in Ex Libris, the first or last line of famous books, and in each case, convince the other players yours is the real one. You don’t have to know anything to play the games, you just have to be a good liar, which is fun in an etymological sense, because ‘fun’ originally meant a hoax or trick, and as a verb, to make a fool of someone. But to gull people is fun-fun too. For a little while, anyway. Because another crucial factor for a good game, according to Leslie, is speed.
LS: I love Scrabble till about halfway through the game, then it slows down and you’re waiting while people move around their seven tiles endlessly. So many people love Scrabble that clearly it’s a personal preference. Before Anagram, my favourite word game was Boggle.
HZ: Three minutes, no messing.
LS: Pretty decisive, whether you won or not.
HZ: That’s another thing. If you’re stoking the competitive spirit, you don’t need the additional ugliness of there being no clear indicator of victory. Boggle operates on a pretty straightforward points system, predicated upon quantity of words and letters therein. But if you’re supposed to be scoring on the word’s qualities, those are rather more complex to ascertain.
LS: Not many people realise the success of Scrabble is based on a statistician figuring out the scoring system - it's the first time someone had a word game where the score of the word game was based on him researching very thoroughly the number of times a particular letter was used. He scoured the New York Times for years counting how many times an E comes up, a Z, etc. Hence the numbers of those letters in the stack to start with was based on this, as is the scoring. And it works, whether or not you like the game. We have a mathematician to thank.
HZ: Probably why it’s not fun.
HZ: Sorry, Scrabble. But a game where you can triumph just by memorizing every two letter word will never have my affection.
Now, I don’t want Leslie to think I’m casting aspersions, but words are free, and so are the car games like I Spy, so how does she get people to pay to play games like Flummoxed, where you bluff the other players into thinking your definition of a foreign word is legit? Or Ex Libris, which a lot of people do with the books already on their bookshelves?
LS: You COULD make your own chess set. I think it’s just simply, you open a box, sit down with your group of friends, and you don’t have to find a load of books on your bookshelf.
HZ: And Flummoxed, you don’t need 112 dictionaries.
LS: Exactly. The dictionary game is easier - one book and you rifle through it. But even there, there’s time spent. Whereas if you got a copy of Ex Libris, there isn’t all that faffing; you can get on and play. More importantly, the plot summaries we write are quite carefully written; they’re not just the back of the book. Sometimes to lead you down the wrong path. Often there are names, so it doesn’t come as a complete surprise if you incorporate those into your answer, but it isn’t a given. So that took some time. Also Ex Libris, because you can play the first or the last line, it does limit the books you use. Not all of them have brilliant first and last lines, or usable ones.
HZ: You’re paying for the curation.
HZ: When you’ve invented your game, you need to name it. Something that indicates what’s involved -
LS: Anagram obviously tells the story.
HZ: And that has a whiff of fun, and hasn’t been already nabbed by someone else.
LS: It’s part of the process I quite like. As the years have gone on, it’s got more and more difficult to come up with a name that hasn’t already been used, so it is quite a process. Whole process of naming a product: people would like to argue it’s a science. I’m not sure it is a science, but there is something about it. ‘Viagra’ gives the sense of vitality and water flowing like Niagara. With games, you do want something snappy.
HZ: Like Jenga.
LS: It’s Swahili, and means ‘build’ - it’s the imperative, ‘kajenga’ is ‘to build’. I gave it a Swahili name because I grew up in East Africa speaking Swahili. So, hunting around for a good name, I thought if I gave it a good name that didn’t mean anything to people who don’t speak Swahili, if you said ‘Jenga’ it would only mean the name.
HZ: Lucky that the Swahili word for ‘build’ was relatively easy for non-Swahili speakers to pronounce.
LS: You’d think. But a lot of people tell me it’s called ‘Yenga’.
HZ: Why would you know how your own game is pronounced?
LS: I did put it on the market myself originally. Pretty much failed. Very difficult to get anyone to buy my wooden blocks. Hasbro took it on in the USA; they loved the game, but hated the name. Almost a dealbreaker, but I hung on. They said it would be difficult to sell, it was a new concept - then to have a name that was meaningless… They wanted something that described what the game was - ‘Tumbledown’ was one. ‘Timber!’ with an exclamation mark. I was saying, “No, no! It’s not going to work!”
LS: The funny thing is now, the people in Hasbro all talk about what a brilliant name it is, and how clever they were to come up with it.
HZ: Jenga bricks are easy to rip off. Are rip off versions allowed to call themselves Jenga?
LS: No. If you come up with a name that is too descriptive, you won’t necessarily be able to trademark it. There was another side to calling it Jenga: I could trademark that name. As a consequence, you can’t call a stack of blocks ‘Jenga’. That doesn’t seem to stop people doing it. Hasbro will be down on them like a ton of bricks - hahaha! I can’t believe I just said that.
Leslie Scott is the founder of Oxford Games. which you can find at oxfordgames.co.uk. I’ll be playing Ex Libris with some friends this weekend.
This episode is sponsored by Hover, who have rescued web domain management from the frankly harrowing and ugly experience it usually is. So if you own domains and you want to transfer them, or if you need to get a website for a project you’ve been brewing - maybe you’ve invented a game! - you can go to hover.com, enter your keywords, and see all the available options for domains with all the suffixes. What do you think - should I get allusionist.horse? Allusionist.furniture? The more domains you own, the cheaper it is to renew them, so it’s tempting. You can get 10% off your first purchase at Hover.com by using the code ‘allusionist’ at checkout.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts on the interwaves. Do check out Mortified, in which brave people dredge up the shame and horror of their teenage years for our great entertainment. I mean, we might as well get something out of their suffering, right? You can find Mortified, and all the other shows, at radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the generosity of you listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
imagineer, noun, a person who devises a highly imaginative concept or technology, especially the attractions in Walt Disney theme parks.
Try using it in an email today. Perhaps to Oxford Dictionaries asking when they started allowing product placement.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Martin Austwick for the music and editorial advice.
If you have invented any word games, I’d love you to tell me about them. Your responses to the last episode about stepfamily terms have been amazing to hear. Some interesting suggestions for alternative terms: bonus, like the Danish and Swedes use, or near-parent, or someone came up with ‘meta’. Metamother!
Anyway, keep in touch at twitter and facebook slash allusionistshow, and at theallusionist.org.