Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Words As Toys

I love words. I love how they sound. I love how they look on the printed page. I love their histories, where they came from, how and why they originated, how and why they’ve changed over the years.

But I’m a fussbudget about how they’re used. Don’t show me “flaunted” when you mean “flouted.” Don’t use “regime” when you mean “regimen.” And you had better spell them correctly. Don’t type t-o when you should type t-o-o. And if you say them out loud, you had better pronounce them correctly or don’t use them. If you insist on using them, if you insist on speaking them out loud, don’t be offended when someone corrects you. That someone is doing you a favor by trying to prevent you from appearing ignorant in the future.

But words can also be toys, not just tools. They can be fun to use, to play with, to enjoy. Probably the most common way that words are used as toys, where people get pleasure out of their existence and meaning and manipulation, is in crossword puzzles. The two most famous, worldwide, are the crosswords in the New York Times and the Times of London. There was a great program shown on PBS a few years ago, it’s now on DVD, called “Wordplay.” It was all about the New York Times crossword puzzles and the people who play them, including famous people like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart. If you are a crossword person at all, it’s worth checking out.

Anagrams are another use of words as toys. An anagram is where the individual letters of a word or phrase are rearranged to make a new word or phrase. You might call it an “alphabet remix.” An anagram can be as simple as the word “bat” being rearranged to form the word “tab” or the phrase “a dirty coin” being rearranged to form the word “dictionary.” It’s as if you took a bunch of alphabet blocks, where each block showed only one letter, and placed them on the table and rearranged them to make different words and phrases by using only the letters that you started with, no more and no less. They can get quite complex. Real anagram fanatics (and I’m not one of those, though I do like anagrams) will work at creating entire meaningful paragraphs that can be rearranged, using only those letters, into other perfectly meaningful paragraphs. Some of them are absolutely astounding in their complexity.

Poetry—rhyming poetry specifically—is another place where one can play with words. (But I think I’ll save poetry for a future post.)

I love words as toys, and I love words as tools. If you ever come across an unusual one (or you have a favorite) that you think would be fun to play with, please let me know. In the meantime, let’s all try harder to use our words correctly and have fun with them at the same time.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that you bring up crosswords and anagrams, because I dislike crosswords and am terrible with anagrams.

    I do love to craft with words, though. Considering the origins, the meanings, the nuances… Using the words to paint pictures and emotions and people.

    If I'm going to use a puzzle, I prefer numbers, like sudoku. Or proofreading—punctuation can be very much a puzzle.

    It's neat to see how different writers like toying with words.

    P.S. Technically, poetry doesn't have to rhyme. :)