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Oxford Guide to Word Games

Tony Augarde’s book includes chapters on every sort of game with words that you can think of — riddles, charades, twenty questions, Scrabble, acrostics, crosswords, palindromes, hangman, and so on — plus some you may not have heard of. Each chapter describes a game and its variations, with many illustrative examples in each case, but also outlines its history in a way that is both scholarly and enjoyable to read — a combination that’s hard to pull off.

Some facts I discovered: The chapter on riddles traces them back to ancient Babylonia; the game of charades appeared in the eighteenth century, interestingly as a written game rather than one in which the players act out scenes; acrostics are known from Roman times. Mr Augarde gives the story behind the development of the crossword, an invention of the American journalist Arthur Wynne, whose first example appeared in the New York World on 21 December 1913 (it’s reproduced in the book) and he goes into the game of Scrabble in some detail, as befits the most popular word game of our times.

The cover of The Oxford Guide to Word Games

This second edition — the book was originally published in 1984 — has been extended to include material on various sorts of wordplay, slips of the tongue, puns, and even text messaging. Among others, you will find the story of mondegreens. The section on spoonerisms analyses to what extent the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, Warden of New College, Oxford, actually uttered any of the twisted fragments of English attributed to him — ones like “Young man, you have tasted your worm and must leave Oxford by the town drain” were certainly invented by undergraduates. He’s said to have admitted to announcing a hymn in chapel as “Kinquering Kongs their Titles Take” but denied the rest, though others claim to have heard him say things like “Through a dark, glassly”. A chapter on slips of the tongue refers to malapropisms, schoolboy howlers, misprints, Irish bulls and oxymorons. Another chapter goes into cross-language errors and the contortions that have appeared in old-time phrase books (although the archetypal “My postillion has been struck by lightning” seems to have been an invention, some of the phrases that really appeared were almost as stilted and unlikely, such as this from 1814: “She is the only daughter of a woollen-draper”).

You may find some words new to you, such as telestich, an acrostic in which not the first but the last letter of each line spells out the word; a metallege is a type of anagram in which the positions of just two letters have been swapped — such as dog and god, or dawdle and waddle; a chronogram is an inscription in which letters representing Roman numerals are given prominence so that they can be added together to denote a given year (they’re often found on old bells, for example); a pangram is a sentence that includes every letter of the alphabet, ideally just once (examples with repeated letters are probably familiar to everybody who has learned to type, such as The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog or Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs).

I’m always conscious that my associations with Oxford University Press might cause readers to suspect that an endorsement of an OUP book might be the result of bias. But I had nothing to do with this work (hadn’t even read the previous edition, as it happens) so that when I say that I found it delightful, it comes from the heart.

[Tony Augarde, Oxford Guide to Word Games, Second Edition, published by Oxford University Press, 8 May 2003; hardback, pp294; ISBN 0-19-866264-5; publisher’s prices: £14.99 (UK), $22.00 (USA).]

Page created 14 Jun. 2003

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