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The Word Games People Play
The Saturday edition of Timeless & Timely, just for word nerds. If you discovered this and you’re not yet a subscriber, gently press the button below.
“‘What one man can invent, another can discover,’ said Holmes.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men,’ 1903
You thought you could escape it, didn’t you?
The one place where you thought you were safe from the onslaught of the last couple of weeks.
Well, my friend, you will find no quarter here. I feel as if it’s my obligation—my sacred duty as a wordsmith—to bring it up.
I’m talking about Wordle.
Wait! Where are you going? I promise I won’t share squares of yellow and green, nor an awkward fraction with 6 as a denominator.
Instead, as “Off the Clock” promises, I’ve got something fun in store.
Two somethings, as a matter of fact.
First, the Wordle rip-offs.
“I, therefore, waited for fresh material”
“I think I may have known how to frame the letter,” — ‘The Dancing Men’
You know what they say about imitation. Well, Wordle has arrived at that level.
In case you’re one of the three people who hasn’t heard of Wordle, it’s a simple word game invented by an engineer as a gift to his girlfriend (New York Times article with paywall lifted). It launched in the fall and has taken off over the last couple of weeks.
Players get six tries to guess a five-letter word. Letter tiles that are in the correct place are colored green; letter tiles in the word but not properly placed are yellow; incorrect guesses are black.
And at the end, you have the option to share your results with the world. Which everyone thinks is mandatory, evidently.
On a serious note, whether you share your results or not, playing Wordle is a fun exercise for the brain, as it allows you to be creative with your vocabulary, intuitively determine which words have been eliminated, and doesn’t operate on a timeframe (other than resetting every night at midnight).
Anyway, there have been a handful of fun imitations that have sprouted up in the wake of Wordle’s popularity.
For you dirty-minded types, Sweardle is a four-letter version of the game. Personally, I had a hard time coming up with too many four-letter words (well, four-letter words of that type).
The name says it all. Absurdle gives you one try—a single row—to land the five-letter word. Good luck.
I have to admit, Letterle is my favorite. Mostly because it’s so simple. You have 26 tries to guess one letter. It’s a welcome relief from the brain-twister aspect of the others.
“Well, Mr. Holmes, what do you make of these?”
“I looked with amazement at the absurd hieroglyphics upon the paper.” — ‘The Dancing Men’
When it comes to word games, though, I always turn back to Sherlock Holmes.
Specifically to “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” written in 1903. Conan Doyle ranked it as third on his list of favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.
In the story, a client brings a set of stick figure drawings to the detective—drawings that have been left on his property.
Holmes realizes that these are coded messages and that each stick figure represents a letter. Flags denote the final letter in a word. And in fairly quick order, ferrets out the first letter:
“As you are aware, E is the most common letter in the English alphabet, and it predominates to so marked an extent that even in a short sentence one would expect to find it most often. Out of fifteen symbols in the first message four were the same, so it was reasonable to set this down as E.”
The wordplay continues, with a little more brain-work involved:
“But now came the real difficulty of the inquiry. The order of the English letters after E is by no means well marked, and any preponderance which may be shown in an average of a printed sheet may be reversed in a single short sentence. Speaking roughly, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, and L are the numerical order in which letters occur; but T, A, O, and I are very nearly abreast of each other, and it would be an endless task to try each combination until a meaning was arrived at. I, therefore, waited for fresh material.”
Eventually, Holmes was able to decipher the messages and catch the criminal. But not before tragedy struck. The story is in the public domain, so feel free to look it up.
A Final Word
“Only one word of epilogue.” — ‘The Dancing Men’
Glen is the foremost collector of Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle material in the world, with over 8,000 items in his collection; 221 of those items are currently on display at an exhibition at The Grolier Club: Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects. It is breathtaking.
If you can’t make it to New York, there is a beautiful catalog that chronicles the exhibition: Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects: From the Collection of Glen S. Miranker by Cathy & Glen Miranker.
I’ve seen his collection in person at his home; it includes a number of original illustrations, such as the one I used in the newsletter on January 7:
And beyond the visual, Glen’s collection includes four original manuscripts — including the manuscript of “The Dancing Men.” To see Conan Doyle’s neat handwriting in person, and to hold the very notebook in which he scrawled those stick figures, is an other-worldly experience for a bibliophile.
Before retiring, Glen was Chief Technology Officer for Apple, having served in the hardware division. His interest in Sherlock Holmes and his professional pursuits seemed to collide for maximum effect: he also collects and lectures on the history of cryptography and is a director of the National Cryptologic Foundation.
Glen is the embodiment of someone who understands word games.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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