A Year In New York

A Daily Bite of the Big Apple

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Day 85: Battle of the Wordsmiths

September 21st · 2 Comments

Writers are like cats: a single animal can be companionable and charming, but a whole pride of them is a house divided against itself. Don’t be surprised if they hiss and spit at each other, strike poses on top of the refrigerator and stalk off to sulk under the bed.

I had this in mind when I headed to Brooklyn for my first New York dinner party. The hostess, Aimee, welcomed us into her cozy brick apartment and served us curried chicken. We were five writers and one non-writer friend. Surprisingly, we ended up charmed by each other, perhaps because we drank so much wine or got a sugar high from the giant cupcakes. Personally, I think it was the word games.

First we played this new game called Snatch. Imagine putting all the word squares from a Scrabble game face down on a table, then turning those squares over one by one to form words. Add a rule that permits stealing your neighbor’s words, and you’re ready to rumble. We leaned over the table and barely breathed. Our minds were an alphabet soup. It was like playing Monopoly with an office of real-estate agents.

In one startling exchange, Evan and Adelle, who were seated next to each other on the couch, stole a word back and forth as it grew from “spy” to “spry” to “preys” to “prayers.” The room rang with cries of astonishment.

As the red wine ran out and we started in on the white, we moved on to play Dictionary, the homegrown parent of the board game Balderdash. In short: find a bafflingly obscure word in the dictionary. Have each player make up a definition for it, then read the definitions aloud. You win by writing a fake definition that sounds so genuine that other players choose it over the real one.

A perfect example (perfect because I picked it) is the word “ngwee.” Is this: 1) A mildly hallucinogenic plant chewed in Southern Africa; 2) a monetary unit of Zambia, equal to 1/100 of a kwacha; 3) a tool used for harvesting rice, especially in Vietnam; 4) wine made from the palm of the frisee tree; or 5) the pouch of a marsupial?

These definitions were read and re-read and read again, and chins were stroked and fingers were drummed. In the end only one player, Brendan, picked the right definition. I’m not going to tell you what it is.

The one thing I will tell you is to have Scrabble or Boggle or some other wordplay on hand if you’re inviting a bunch of writers to dinner. When you spy them spry and eyeing each other like prey, pull out the game. Otherwise, say your prayers.

Tags: Schmoozing

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dan // Sep 23, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    pfft. When I was in college, the Writers Union had our annual Prose vs. Poet volleyball games. I’m proud to say that we Prose writers thoroughly trounced the Poets with regularity.
    Oh, and every New Yorker knows that ngwee is a verb. The act of wiping dirty water, with an even dirtier rag, on the windshields of hapless drivers caught at a traffic light, with the intent of extorting money to wipe the noxious film off with a broken squeegee.

  • 2 Jay // Oct 7, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    You remind me of so many of the kids I went to college with (dangling preposition), who grew up in New Yawk, who wouldn’t share information because they were all cut-throats trying to get into med school — to satisfy their mothers. You probably don’t even know how to pronounce ngwee, do you, smarty pants?

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