Words ... words ...

Posted on June 16, 1999

Last weekend, I was tangled in a crazy game of H-O-R-S-E with my cousins.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, or think it is somehow tied to the Kentucky Derby, the game is simple. Make a basket (shoot, don't weave), and if the person behind you misses, they get a letter. You keep playing until you spell "horse." There are many versions of the game, including H-O-R-S-E-S, P-I-G, and a personal favorite, D-R-O-M-E-D-A-R-Y.

But which is more important to the game – athletic skill to make a shot, or being able to spell?

Last week, national spelling bee contestants played H-O-R-S-E without a basketball. And their words were more difficult to spell. The Associated Press was nice enough to transmit words that were missed during competition. Maybe "nice" isn't the correct word.

I started looking up a few of the words, and to my dismay, some of them are not even in Webster's New World dictionary. It's disappointing to learn new words and be denied by a book bigger than a breadbox. Then again, good bread doesn't rest on a bookshelf.

A dictionary is a copy editor's third-best friend. The first is a stylebook. The second is a dromedary or any favorite fictitious pet. Sure, a book with so many words could be put to good use, say, as a paperweight, but that's not really using its potential.

Sometimes, I'll look up a word and before finding it, I'll notice other interesting words. Plus, my dictionary is filled with artists' renditions of some selected words. There's an Adelie penguin, a Roman racing chariot and even a guy playing a sitar.

Of course, pictures couldn't help spellers at the annual competition. Picasso may have trouble illustrating some. The first word misspelled, "irascible," means "easily-angered; quick-tempered." That's probably how Mark Albers, 12, Reno, Nev., felt after he was ousted from the tournament. I've become quite fond of the ninth word, "ichneumon," which is an Egyptian mongoose.

But I still haven't found "piloncillo," "jarabe," "vespacide" and "fresnel." Either they are on vacation or I need a bigger dictionary. They weren't even on Webster's homepage, www.m-w.com. You can go there to learn new definitions and play word games. Not everyone is thrilled by etymologies, but a few minutes discovering history never killed anyone.

If 9- to 14-year-olds know how to spell words with more letters than Emmanuel Lewis' mailbox, I should know some too. A plan, an idea, a solution (that's called asyndeton, which is the practice of leaving out the usual conjunctions between coordinate sentence elements).

We've finally reached the peroration (the concluding part), so dust off your dictionary if you don't understand a word I'm writing. Or go play a game of S-I-P-H-O-N-A-P-T-E-R-O-L-O-G-Y in your own gymkhana.