Category Archives: fun

al dente: the metal version

You may remember my quick pronunciation tip video for al dente, wherein I make it clear that it’s not said like “Al Dante”:

Well, last week a guy named Robert emailed me about that video. “I am creating a joke metal project that is themed around Pasta,” he wrote. “Very silly, very fun. I was wondering if I could use audio from that video (basically voice clips) within a song of mine?”

Of course he could. I could not possibly say no. That sort of thing is very much to my taste.

So he did. He made it the middle of three pieces in a YouTube EP. You don’t have to listen to it – not everyone likes metal music – but I think it’s fun, and it’s less than three minutes, anyway. Here:

Life lessons I learned from Scrabble

In my leisure time, I play Scrabble online against friends. Over the years I’ve gotten reasonably good at it; I’m happy to say that I know several people who are also good at it and give me interesting games. And as I’ve learned to be better at it (some of it from playing, some of it from reading Stefan Fatsis’s book Word Freak), I’ve learned bits of perspective that are very useful for doing well at the game but also often useful in other parts of life. These may or may not be useful to you in your life – but at the very least, they will help you at Scrabble.

1. There’s no such thing as winning a turn.
The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. The aim of Scrabble is to finish with more points than your opponent. If you get more points this turn but it leads to you doing worse (or your opponent doing better) subsequently, it’s not the best play. I remember playing one friend who, after one game, confessed that he had been using an online anagram finder (which, by the way, I do not – I’m far too vain to seek that kind of help). “And yet you still lost,” I said. Likewise, in other parts of life, you may feel like you have come out on top in an interaction – especially if you’re the sort of person who treats every conversation as a contest, or looks for ways of sucking the last nickel out of a customer – but you may very well lose out in the long run, because the people you “won” against won’t be inclined to let you “win” again in future.

2. It’s not how fancy your words are, it’s how you use them.
Many people think doing well at Scrabble is all about knowing and playing really nice words. It’s true that knowing a lot of words is very helpful, but often you get the most points (and improve your position the most) with plain, ordinary words. This is also true elsewhere in life: fancy words in the wrong place can fall flat, and the right ordinary words may score a lot of points.

3. Most of the time, the little words make the difference.
This is a thing most people learn before too long at Scrabble: big words may make big impacts, but little words – two-letter words that you make while playing alongside another word, and sometimes two-letter words played two ways on a triple – are crucial. Likewise in the rest of life, small words – though slightly longer than two letters, such as “Thanks!” – can really help make connections.

4. But sometimes the right big word can have quite an effect.
This should be obvious: the two previous points notwithstanding, impressive words are impressive, and used in the right place, they can score a lot of points.

5. Some things that appear to be worth the least can be worth the most.
Two of my fundamental rules in Scrabble are “Don’t waste an S” (meaning that if you use an S, the play should be worth at least 40 points, since you are very likely to be able to play a good word and also pluralize or conjugate a word already on the board orthogonally) and “A blank is a bingo” (meaning that a blank tile gives you the flexibility to make a play that uses all seven tiles, which will give you a 50-point bonus, and you do well to hold onto it until you can put it to that use). And yet an S says it’s worth one point and a blank is worth zero points on its own. Likewise in the rest of life, there are things that by themselves don’t seem worth a whole lot but make quite a lot of things possible. But what those things are will vary quite a bit, unlike in Scrabble.

6. Start by looking for where you’ll accomplish the most.
In Scrabble, if I can play a bingo, I will; if not, I look at any high-value tiles I have and see if I can use them on a double or a triple or even a double-double or double-triple. Then I work out the rest of the play on that basis. In the rest of life, similarly, if you come into a situation where there are different things you can do, see where you can put your best assets (skills, for instance) to best use.

7. Manage the board.
Many players play words without looking to see what they’re opening up or closing off on the board. They may make a great opportunity for their opponent (remember that this is a game that you are, in fact, playing to win). Or they may play a word that makes it very difficult to play any further in that area of the board. The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. Pay attention to what opportunities you create. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

8. Manage your rack.
It’s common to have times when you look at the tiles on your rack and see a motley and basically unplayable assortment of tiles. Some of the time this is just bad luck, but some of the time it’s because you played the easy-to-play tiles – or the biggest-point word – and left yourself with a mess, and the new tiles you drew didn’t rescue you. Do what you can to make sure you have a reasonable balance of vowels and consonants. Don’t have too many high-point letters (they seldom go together productively). In short, pay attention to what you’re leaving for yourself. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

9. It’s not a referendum on your intelligence.
Scrabble is just a game. And some people I know who are very smart aren’t all that good at it, because it requires a particular set of abilities and learned tactical skills. If someone beats you at Scrabble, oh well. You are not humiliated (though if you’ve made a lot of noise about how good you are at it, you sow what you reap). Most of the rest of life is not a game, but it, too, is almost never a referendum on your intelligence. Even really smart people aren’t good at everything – and can make mistakes at things they are good at. It’s OK. Own up, suck it up, move on. It’s just a thing you’re doing; it’s not the sum total of you.

10. There are always great plays you just can’t make.
“Aw, man! I had a great bingo on my rack and I had nowhere to play it!” This is a common complaint. There are two truisms, though. First, it’s not a great play if you can’t make it. Plays are made by what’s on your rack and what’s on the board. You don’t have a great play on your rack, only on the board, and only if the board allows. The rest is just “If I had a million dollars” stuff. Second, however often you notice a “great play you can’t make,” I guarantee you there are many more “great plays you can’t make” that you don’t notice – as well as great plays you could have made but didn’t notice. It’s just the way it is. You don’t always get the opportunity, and you don’t always notice when you do. But you notice more if you look more.

11. Always leave room for the other person to do something that helps you.
I generally prefer to play Scrabble in a way that creates openings. Partly it’s so if my opponent takes one opening, there will still be another opening for me to take. Partly it’s because if I’ve set it up right, my opponent’s gain will likely create an opening for me to gain even more. If I play in a way that closes off opportunities, yes, my opponent won’t be able to score big, but neither will I – and my opponent also won’t be able to make a play that will be useful to me. Most of the rest of life is not so competitive (or at least doesn’t have to be, and if you think it does, see number 1 above), but it holds true that you should leave room for others to do things that help you. And one really good way to do that is to help them. When you’re not playing a game like Scrabble where only one person can win, you might be able to help set it up so everyone wins.

12. If you count on getting lucky, you won’t; if you count on not getting unlucky, you will.
And if you count on the other person not getting lucky, they will. I don’t think I need to explain this too much. A short form of this might be “Hedge your bets.” If you make a play that’s worth decent points but creates an opportunity for the other person to score, say, 52 points if they just happen to have the X and an I, you will surprisingly often find forthwith that they do have the X and an I. This is in part because people often hold onto those high-value letters for several turns, so the chance of their having one is higher than a simplistic calculation of the odds would say. The short of it is that if you make plans that rely on things beyond your control going just so, they often will not come out as you wanted.

13. There’s no point in complaining about your tiles.
Everyone gets bad tiles from time to time; Scrabble is a game of chance as well as of skill. It’s not all that different from card games in many ways. If you’re not playing well because you keep drawing crap tiles no matter how much you try to manage your rack, so it goes. It happens to everyone. The game is not a referendum on your intelligence. Similarly, elsewhere in life, if things beyond your control aren’t lining up to let you display the true genius you want the world to recognize you as, consider (a) whether you are that true genius, (b) whether the person you’re complaining to is someone you had been hoping to show yourself as superior to, and (c) whether the person you’re complaining to might have experienced the same from time to time and not made a stink about it.

14. You can’t win all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with the other person winning some of the time.
Scrabble is a game you play to win, yes. But you get to play more than one game in life. Take the insight from point 1 and apply it here in the broader scope. People who win against you at least some of the time are more likely to want to keep playing against you. That’s not to say you should obviously throw games. But you could play a bit more loosely from time to time. And at least not get upset if you lose. Likewise in life, tomorrow is another day – usually.

15. Finish en beauté.
I took a course in syntax taught in French once, and we didn’t quite make it all the way through the text before the last class; the professor told us that we should read the remaining chapter if we wanted to finish “en beauté.” That literally means “in beauty” but idiomatically can mean “with a flourish” or “with panache.” I apply that when I play Scrabble: even if the game is nearly over and there is no doubt who will win (sometimes me, sometimes my opponent), I like to look for the best moves I can play. Because although the point of the game is to win, there’s still nothing wrong with enjoying the other aspects of it. And I can still do the best I can even if it’s just a flourish.

I can’t say that I apply all these lessons equally well to my life, but I can say that I have definitely gained useful perspective from them all. And, as I said, at the very least, they all help when playing Scrabble.

Watch the ACES Celebrity Spelling Bee

ACES, the Society for Editing, has an annual spelling bee as part of its conference, with proceeds going to its education fund, and this year it’s something extra special. Like the rest of the conference, it’s online – and this time it’s all editing celebrities! OK, it’s five celebrities and me. I will be competing against Benjamin Dreyer (of Penguin Random House, and author of Dreyer’s English), Mary Norris (of The New Yorker, and author of Between You & Me), Ellen Jovin (of the Grammar Table, and author of quite a few editing guides), Henry Fuhrmann (of the Los Angeles Times), and Steve Bien-Aimé (professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University). 

Only one will prevail! But the big winner (aside from you lucky audience members) will be the ACES Education Fund: your fee for getting to watch is a donation of at least $15. It’s on April 21, 4–5 pm Eastern time. Get your ticket at the ACES website.

They asked if I would make a promo video. Of course I would. Here it is.


Some days, you know, you have plans, you have designs, you have desires, but at the end of the day, you’ve done jactiate. And other days, you have duties, you have instructions, you have obligations, but at the end of the day, you haven’t done jactiate. And either way, it’s the same.

It’s the same because jactiate is the kind of thing where the result is identical whether you do it or not. Literally – that’s the definition: ‘stuff that can be done or not done with no difference in ultimate effect’. And I say “stuff” and not “things” or “a thing” because it’s a mass noun, like water, air, rice, and business: it doesn’t get an article and it doesn’t get a plural. Mostly, in fact, it just shows up in two collocations: do [or did] jactiate and don’t [or didn’t] do jactiate. And those two phrases mean exactly the same thing, in spite of the opposite polarity.

Where does this word jactiate come from? You might recognize the jact root, as in Julius Caesar’s famous Alea jacta est! That means “The die is cast!” More often, though, jacta (or jactus or jactum) would be translated as thrown or tossed – and you can see the root (mutatis mutandis) in other English words, such as eject and reject, both of which can be paraphrased as toss out.

You recognize the -ate ending, of course; more often it’s on verbs, but it can show up on adjectives describing things that have had the verb done to them, and nouns naming those things. A noun you might recognize in this form is ejaculate, which refers to stuff that has been ejaculated. And an adjective you might recognize is cruciate, as in anterior cruciate ligament, so named not because it’s excruciating when you tear it but just because there are two of them and they cross over (= they are cruciate). In the same pattern, jactiate is stuff that’s tossed out (or will be tossed out, or has been tossed out), and so doing it or not doing it makes no difference; you might as well have done nothing.

You can take the cue for pronunciation of jactiate from the analogous words, too. Although verbs ending in -ate say it like the word ate, adjectives and nouns reduce and destress it. Just as cruciate sounds like “crewshit,” jactiate sounds like “jackshit.” So when you say “You’ve done jactiate” and “We haven’t done jactiate,” it sounds like…

…well, ha ha, yes, it is “You’ve done jack shit” and “We haven’t done jack shit.” I just made this word up because I didn’t have anything better to do at the moment. It’s a Latin joke for word geeks. (It’s not even perfectly formed from the Latin, but whatevs, did you even notice?) You probably know the term jack shit, which first appeared in colloquial English usage by the 1970s (Oxford’s first citation is 1968). Well, now you can spell it jactiate instead of jack shit (or jackshit) and say “So there!” to the tut-tutters. Just tossing that out there…

Sure-fire opening lines

This was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in want of readers must be possessed of a good opening line. A book is a relationship – many of us spend more intimate time with books than with people – and it is important to start the relationship off on a good foot.

So, naturally, I wondered whether good opening lines for books were like good opening lines on Tinder.

A book, of course, is not addressing you personally. Still, like your first message to someone on Tinder (I’m told), a book’s opening line should include a couple of attention-grabbing details, be about something the reader is interested in, refer to things they know about, present honesty and vulnerability, and leave the reader wanting to know more. It’s even better if it’s witty.

On the other hand, books are supposed to bring adventure, with danger and disturbance. It’s safe, since you can close the cover and return to normalcy, but it can’t be like a nice date. Death makes for bad dates but good reading.

So, as a study in pragmatics and discourse, let’s try some opening lines of books lightly adapted to be Tinder opening lines and see how they do.

  • “Hey. I am somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert and the drugs are beginning to take hold.” (Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)
  • “Good evening. It is a pleasure to burn.” (Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
  • “JSYK, everything in my profile happened, more or less.” (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
  • “Greetings. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • “How’s it going? If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye)
  • “Greetings. I am a woman who has discovered she has turned into the wrong person.” (Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups)
  • “Nice day, eh? The sun is shining, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (Samuel Beckett, Murphy)
  • “A bit about myself: All children, except one, grow up.” (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan)
  • “Yo. I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed in my bed into a monstrous vermin.” (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis)
  • “Hi there. I was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad.” (Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche)
  • “Good day. I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground)
  • “My name is Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and I almost deserve it.” (C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)

From these we observe two further truisms:

  1. The genre expectations of narrative fiction are sharply different from those of dating.
  2. Most protagonists of novels may be very interesting to read about but are not the kind of people you would want to go on a date with.

Book sniffing note: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1964 edition

I first met this set of encyclopedias in 1976, when they were a dozen years old and I was just a bit younger. They were on a bookshelf in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Fredonia, New York. I courted them again and again over three decades: whenever I was visiting and not occupied with other things – setting up domino reactions, blowing soap bubbles, photographing family, seeing local sights, watching television, playing darts in the cool empty basement – I might pull out a volume and look for something to read, just as I would at my own home with the World Book encyclopedias and, later, a much newer set of Britannica with soft covers that smelled of educated leather, a very different smell from any other encyclopedia.

This set travelled with my grandmother to a seniors’ residence. And then, when she was reducing her possessions to those few that would fit in a smaller apartment, I finally took it home with me in a rented car. It has anchored the bottom shelf of my bookcase for about fifteen years now, half of that since its original owner departed in hopes of meeting the source of all knowledge.

I don’t often pull out a volume and open it. I don’t need to; fresher information is available in fire-hose quantity through the same device I’m typing this on, and even the entertainment value of this dinosaur of knowledge is not as great as other options.

But a computer does not feel like a volume of this 1964 set of Britannica. And it certainly does not smell like it.

I have pulled out volume 7, Daisy to Educational Psychology, this evening. It is in good shape, less bumped and broken than some of the others. It feels solid, like a volume you would pull off the shelf in the first library where you learned what solid, smart books feel like. Though it would make a poor pillow, it is as comforting as down and cool, dry linen, inviting you to black-and-white dreams of knowledge. It has a hard cover in a deep red textured material that is at least meant to recall leather. When I open it, it makes a high, resonant creaking-cracking sound, something between a straw slurp and the opening of an ancient coffin from inside.

And then I smell it. Because that is what one does. There is nothing other that plucks the strings of memory as smartly as smell. You don’t know for sure that you are getting the real, authoritative, well-aged knowledge unless it smells like a book from your school library.

And this does. It smells like the grey-suit-with-school-tie version of a book. It is a crisp smell but not sharp, neither flowery nor floury, but partway between an HB pencil and a soda biscuit. It smells like the book where I first learned of logarithms; it smells like the book in which I made my first explorations of the German language. It smells like the official records of things my parents and teachers did. It smells like the elaborate mathematical equations it displays: it is the book-smell version of a schoolchild’s idea of an Ivy League physics classroom. It smells like maps and diagrams and dot-screened documentary photographs as you first learned the smells of such things. It smells like a Christmas morning of the mind.

It is the smell of plywood desks with laminate tops engraved by ballpoint pens; it is the smell of sitting lotus-legged on the hard rug floor between rows of shelves in the library, the comforting cliffs of knowledge towering above you as you relax in the quiet canyon of discovery, secure that no dedicated ignoramus will smoke you out. This one smell conveys structure and potential; it tells you that you are about to know more, and there may be a test.

This smell is the wrapping on a gift from God, the God of knowledge, the God my grandmother surely looked forward to meeting. What sort of a grandmother has a set of Britannica? A tall, graceful, smart, witty grandmother, magazine-model beautiful, lifelong teetotaller, former missionary, small-town western New York pragmatic, widow, high-school teacher. A woman who believed in gifts from God and believed that knowledge was one such. A woman whose name was literally a gift from God: Dorothy, from δῶρον (doron, ‘gift’) and θεός (theos, ‘god’).

And these books are a gift to me from my grandmother. She is ashes now, but this yard and a half of unburnt paper – bought when she was younger than I am now – remains. It takes up space I could use for other things, yes, but that’s what memories do.

Cryptic crossword solution

Here’s the solution to the cryptic crossword. If you’d like an explanation for any of the clues, ask away! Continue reading

A cryptic crossword

For fun, because everything is unusual just now, and people may want some diversion, I have decided to make a cryptic crossword. It’s been years since I’ve made one, and never before for this blog, but what the heck.

Some of you know what cryptic crosswords are all about. This is one of those, and there is nothing unduly untoward about it; in fact, it’s smaller than most, and you’ll probably find it generally not too hard.

Some of you, however, will be unfamiliar with cryptic crosswords. They have a more spaced-out grid than the usual American ones, so you can’t fill in a word completely just by filling in all the words that cross it, but that’s not the fun part. It’s “cryptic” because each clue gives the answer two ways – one with a definition and one using wordplay – but you have to figure out which part is the definition and which is the wordplay, because it’s not made obvious for you. The wordplay can involve an anagram (signalled by a descriptor such as “mixed-up”), a pun (signalled by something suggesting “sounds like”), or a deconstruction of the form into smaller bits. Sometimes it’s something a bit more out of left field.

The first example I was ever given was the clue “Country song about sailor.” The solution is ARABIA. Why? Because it’s a country, and in form it’s a song (ARIA) about (on either side of) a sailor (AB – a short form for Able-Bodied Seaman). Other examples that come to mind are “A girl’s lies are savoury things,” which solves to HERBS (because HER = a girl’s and BS = lies, and HERBS are savoury things); “Endless bribery, i.e. corruption, and disease,” which solves to BERIBERI (because endless bribery = BRIBER, i.e. corruption means that I and E are mixing in with that, and disease = BERIBERI); and “Hear the price of corn? Pirate!” which solves to BUCCANEER (because it sounds like “buck an ear” – hear the price of corn – and it means pirate).

OK, here it is. Off you go. I’ll post the solution in a couple of days. Patrons on Patreon will get to see it tomorrow! You’ll see I’m using a letter-number grid to designate the starting squares rather than just numbering them; that’s because it’s easier to read.



A1. Birds responsible for nearly all of divorces, weirdly

A3. You slob, I’ve almost gotten confused, clearly

B5. Frosty? Try the south now, dude

A7. The upper limit of a bird’s call

C9. Johnson’s handlers are not worth keeping


A1. Slightly too short to go on your head, but you can eat it

C1. Nurse flies across avenue, says A7

E1. In scuffle, raise worn pot and kettle

G1. You shouldn’t need help on this, but here’s help

I1. When they’re blue, they play ball

G5. Love sounds like it could open up for you

A6. One, but absolutely huge

I6. They fought – like cats and dogs

C7. Five at a pot

Some old theatre

Aina and I pulled out some old VHS tapes and have started digitizing them. I found two of me in my twenties performing in plays, for those who are curious and have some time to waste.

The first is a great British farce, One for the Pot. I’m the lead, playing three different characters. I was 21 years old. It was a community theatre production at the Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton. As I watch it now I can see plenty of things I should have done differently, but it was pretty funny nonetheless, and it had a good cast overall.

The second is a workshop performance of Othello adapted into Jingxi (Beijing Opera) style, not including the vocal technique – just aspects of the movement and plot devices. It was the output of a summer course at Tufts University in 1994, when I was 26. It was directed and taught by Fan Yisong and Sun Huizhou (William Sun), and it included Balinese performer I Nyoman Catra plus a few people who are now professors of theatre. I played Cassio. I don’t think I was very good, frankly (the Othello and Desdemona were much better). But it’s worth watching at least the beginning (after the introduction by Laurence Senelick) so you can see what I looked like when I was very skinny and had very long hair.

Words we love irrationally much

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

I asked people on Twitter about words they love irrationally much. I got quite a few responses. Actually, I got so many that when I tried to retweet them all, Twitter finally told me I had reached my daily tweet limit. And did again the next day.

The words that people love irrationally much are many and varied. But a few words came up again and again, and it’s interesting to see what they have in common. Continue reading