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The Bell Curve: Some Christmas Day word play

December 29, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

There's a time and space on Christmas when all the gifts have been unwrapped and duly fussed over, when it is too early for dinner, and an entire day faces you. That's when you look for a letdown activity.

Movies serve that purpose quite well. There you can sleep or drift or daydream without feeling guilt at a need for entertainment after the morning's high.

But in my house this Christmas, the entertainment was a game, one of the kind where the participants sit around a table and argue about who has the most smarts — as if this were a life and death issue.

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I was one of five contestants, the only one, I note with humility, with an adult perspective. This gave me a chance to step outside the game and study the behavior on display. And it illustrated noisily how inflexible competition can take over what essentially is a ninth-grade game with ambitions.

The name of the game is Literati, and the goal is to expose the other contestants' limited grasp of the English language. Each player draws a card from an humongous pack in which a word appears on one side and a definition of the word and its use in a sentence on the other. The words are not exotic or tricks. They are solid English words with exact definitions that have been replaced by clichéd words and phrases with elastic uses and definitions. The players are given one minute to write the exposed words into a sentence. The cards have various values that make up the players' scores. And that amount is doubled if all of the exposed cards are written into one coherent sentence.

All of the sentences are subject to challenge, and therein lies the source of the noisy debates that took places in my group of five, in the shadow of our Christmas tree. I've agreed to protect the innocent by not using real names. So we'll call the contestants Margaret and Nancy and — beside me — Charley and Andy. Charley was the most strident and Nancy the most active in taking him on. None of us were ready to concede challenges.

Among the words we had to put into sentences were "collusion," "malign," "quagmire," "mettle," "malingerer," "befuddled," "flout" and "assuage." You get the idea. Putting more than one of the game words into the same sentences produced such monstrosities as "His mettle allowed him to flout her befuddled state."

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