We've all seen word puzzles like anagrams and crosswords in the local paper, but most of us aren't aware of the long and complex history of these conundrums. For instance, most scholars believe that word games began in the form of riddles, which have been found all over the world and in some of the most ancient texts in the West. It's believed that riddles have been used as memory devices and as the means for sparring in complex tests of wits. Riddle contests have taken place in both real and fantasy worlds. There's the question of the Sphinx which asks. "What creature walks on four feet in the morning, two at midday, and on three in evening?" The biblical Samson fails a famous riddle challenge because of his beloved Delilah's betrayal. The great Greek poet, Home, is said to have died from his frustration at not being able to answer a riddle. And, of course, there is the fantastical riddling match between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit, which contains the puzzle: "'A box without hinges key or lid/ yet golden treasure inside is hid.'" Knowing the answer is, "an egg," just might save your life.
Perhaps the most popular of word games, the crossword puzzle, was invented in 1913 by a journalist, Arthur Wynne. Though it's been through a number of refinements, the popularity of crosswords hasn't waned, due in part to its mental challenges, as well as the belief that verbal games like crosswords helped to hone the mind.
It could also be argued that other word games -- like acrostics, chronograms, cryptograms, spoonerisms, lipograms, palidromes, puns, and tongue twisters -- help to expand vocabulary, reshape old patterns of thinking, and encourage critical skills. A very interesting claim is that these kinds of games may serve to inject a healthy dose of skepticism into everyday life, innoculating the players from simply taking things as they may first appear. Certainly, because of their capacity to inspire playful curiosity, word games can offer both children and adults some very enjoyable ways to learn about practical aspects of language (like spelling, multiple meanings of words, and idiomatic usage), as well as ways to use language creatively -- all and all providing great preparation for future writers and careful readers. And perhaps most importantly, word games have the power to remind us, as we practice unravelling their puzzles, just how playful even serious things, like life, can be.
You can find these and other word games online on:
Copyright 2003 © Laurie Taylor
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