December 01, 2005

Wordplay Watch #2: The hunt for the ten-square

In other word-wrangling news, the Times of London has published an article on progress towards constructing a special kind of crossword called a word square, in which entries read the same across as down. The creation of a 10x10 word square (or "10-square") has been something of a holy grail in the field of recreational linguistics, also known as "logology" (a term coined by the late Dmitri Borgmann, author of the 1965 classic Language on Vacation and founder of Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics). Ideally, one would want to construct the square using only entries found in a single dictionary, or, barring that, a small number of dictionaries and other English-language references. So far, only 9-squares have been composed meeting that standard of rigor.

The Times article reports breathlessly but rather incomprehensibly on the search for the 10-square. Confusion begins with the rambling headline: "'Su Doku' word game that baffled Ancient Greeks took an expert 7 years to crack — you've got 10 minutes (and a little help)." It's a real stretch to compare word squares to Sudoku, the number puzzle that has become immensely popular first in the U.K. and now in the U.S. (The article proudly but irrelevantly points out that the Times first introduced Sudoku to British readers.) Other than the fact that word squares and Sudoku puzzles are both arranged in square grids, they really don't have much in common.

Next is the business about the "ancient Greeks," which continues in the lead sentence: "A British engineer claims to have solved a puzzle that has counfounded some of the world's best brains since the time of the Ancient Greeks." There's no evidence that the composition of word squares, let alone 10-squares, was a pastime in ancient Greece. The Greeks did enjoy making acrostics, but that's a different kind of wordplay (despite the fact that the Times confusingly calls word squares "acrostic squares"). The ancient Romans, on the other hand, gave us the first known word square, the so-called sator square, found in the ruins of Pompeii and elsewhere:

This has the added virtue of being palindromic, as well as (supposedly) making an intelligible Latin sentence, something like "The sower Arepo holds the wheels with effort." (The Times confuses matters further by printing the sator square upside down, with rotas at the top.)

After we get through the befuddling opening of the article, we are told that Ted Clarke, an engineer from Cornwall, claims to have constructed the "best yet" 10-square. But his composition "does not satisfy some experts" who "say that because one of his words does not appear in any dictionary it should be disallowed."

Let's take a look at Clarke's creation (which the Times offers as a puzzle for their Sudoku-addled readers):

First of all, it's unclear why the Times thought that this was at all newsworthy, considering that Clarke announced his discovery of the square back in April 1999, in an issue of his e-zine WordsWorth. The "seven years" that it took Clarke to construct it may have begun in 1992, but the Times never says. Secondly, though Clarke came enticingly close to an acceptable 10-square, the "word" that "does not satisfy some experts" doesn't even a resemble a word. It's NONESEVENT, which Clarke breaks down as nones-event, supposedly meaning an event taking place during the nones (on the Roman calendar, the ninth day before the ides of a month — that would be day 5 or 7, not the "end of the month" as the Times definition reads). Not only does this "word" not appear in any reference book, the collocation "nones event" hasn't been attested in any source outside of Clarke's own writings.

Clarke's square is just one in a long line of near-misses since Dmitri Borgmann and other logologists first started working on the 10-square problem. Personally I prefer some other attempts that have appeared in Word Ways (the best are by Jeff Grant and Rex Gooch). All of them have their shortcomings, such as using obscure toponyms or names from telephone directories, but I prefer obscurity to the utter spuriousness of nones-event. Clearly, as Jeff Grant and Ross Eckler (current editor of Word Ways and author of Making the Alphabet Dance) both say in the article, the search for an acceptable 10-square is far from over. [*]

One final source of bewilderment in the Times article: Tony Augarde, author of the Oxford Guide to Word Games, is quoted as saying:

It's not perfect but it's the best I've seen. Previous attempts used words that no one had heard of or tautonyms, words that repeat the same sound like orangutan, which made it easier.

Based on the inaccuracies elsewhere in the article, I'll give Mr. Augarde the benefit of the doubt and surmise that he was misquoted. Not only is orangutan not a tautonym (a word formed by reduplication), it's not even ten letters long! I believe that the confusion is over one of Dmitri Borgmann's early efforts, which used both orangutang and urangutang, plus eight tautonyms (actually five, since three are repeats):


I don't have Borgmann's original work at hand to supply definitions for all of these (andolandol seems particularly obscure), but they were all located in English-language reference books. The big problem with Borgmann's approach is of course the repeated entries. But it's possible to construct a 10-square with eight tautonyms and no repeats, if it looks something like this:


This type of construction is probably insurmountably difficult using only English-language references, but I'd imagine it's possible in an Austronesian language like Malay/Indonesian where plurals and intensives are formed by reduplication. Any takers?

[* Update, 12/7/2005: Rex Gooch emails to note yet another inaccuracy in the Times article. He quotes Word Ways editor Ross Eckler as saying the following:

I was misquoted in the Dec 1 article by de Bruxelles in saying that the ten-square problem was "still waiting to be solved". I actually believe that various ten-squares published in Word Ways in the past four years essentially solve the problem; all words or names appear in standard English-language references. Allowing invented phrases has not been allowed, since it reduces a tough problem to triviality.

The Daily Mail also reports on Clarke's ten-square and observes that nones event isn't the only dubious entry in Clarke's square — states wren is also not attested in any known reference. These flaws put Clarke's square significantly behind the 2002 efforts by Gooch and Grant.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 1, 2005 04:34 PM