Words with No Meaning

A while ago I wrote about the specialized vocabulary shared by seasoned crossword puzzle aficionados – words that tend to have a lot of “e’s” in them, like epée and ewer, essential to the crossword fill surrounding the theme words.  I have come to know exactly what these words mean, even though they have no place in a casual conversation.  I also realize that I have a whole separate vocabulary of words that are totally meaningless, words like teel, theine, haet, snaw, all words that I have come to value through many hours of playing Boggle.  Knowing the meaning of these words is totally irrelevant – all I have to know is that the word exists.  Actually some of my frequent Boggle words are happy typo accidents – a misspelled hate became haet, misspelled teal became tael.

It all started about 8 years ago when my sister-in-law Debbie introduced me to online Boggle.  We share a love of word-play and on family occasions we always bring out a bag of letter tiles and play games like anagrams, speed scrabble or Boggle.  In Boggle, there is a 5 by 5 grid of letter cubes, and within 2 minutes you have to find as many words from adjacent cubes as you can, with bonus points awarded for length and uniqueness.  Very quickly you learned to spot fruitful combinations of letters, i.e the “ght” that will get you words like night, sight and even the obscure “dight.” Spotting an “ing” is critical to success, since appending this to various verbs results in bonus points for length.  I also took advantage of anagrams – if I spotted the word “lair,” I could quickly reel off lira, liar, rail, aril, rial and lari.  I did recall from my remote college botany days that aril was a seed coating, but only just now found out that lari is a coin from the Maldives, joining lira (Italy) and rial (Iran) as other anagrammatic currencies.   

These sessions of Thanksgiving and Christmas Boggle separated us from the more casual player, until, of course online Boggle.  There it was, online, 24/7, and I foolishly opened the door and let the devil waltz in and make himself at home.  This online version was particularly seductive since it assigned you a color indicating your skill level, ranging from the neophyte green, through blue, purple, orange and elite red.  If you beat another online player with a score higher than you, your score increased, and if you reached certain cut-off points your banner color changed.  Blue was 700 and red was 1500.  When I first signed on to play I was assigned the middle of the road purple, but I quickly plummeted until I got enough experience to start my slow climb up, chipping away at the colors.  It took me two years but I finally and briefly got to the red level, and then explicably went into a frustrating orange slump.  (An embarrassing detail was that the site recorded the number of times that you played, and if you multiplied that by the 2 minutes for each game, you immediately got an idea of what kind of time suck you had fallen into.  My tally remains a closely guarded secret.) 

I tended to play online Boggle more in the winter, given the more limited range of outdoor options.  I enjoy birdwatching in the spring, and decided that I could continue to birdwatch on Boggle in the off seasons.  I routinely spotted wrens, robins or tits in my Boggle game, and ernes (sea eagle) were a frequent find, well known to me from crossword puzzles. I also made a fortuitous discovery that if you spelled the seabid skua backwards you got auks.  Auks are sadly extinct flightless seabirds of the Northern Hemisphere that basically fill the niche of penguins.  Their limited number of nesting sites and ineptness on land made them easy prey for hunters, both for food and for down feathers.  The great auk was extinct by the mid 1800s.  The Boggle beauty of these birds was that if I found auks, I automatically knew that skua was available.  I was always the only person to find the skua/auks duo, thus netting me bonus points for originality. 

I started categorizing Boggle words in different way.  My most entertaining game was Boggle body fluids to see if I could find both the formally correct words and their corresponding jargon, – saliva (spit), bile, sweat, urine (pee), mucus (noun), mucous (adjective), sebum (oil), semen (cum), and then I made the executive decision to force fit feces and its jargon (pooh, crap, shit) into my growing list of fluids.   Snot was also easy to find, but its more formal partner, phlegm, was more problematic.  After a couple years of looking, I made a deal with myself that if I ever found phlegm, I would shut down the Boggle site and kick the devil out of my house for good and go cold turkey.   Phlegm would be a good note to end on – its combination of consonants would make it a difficult word to find and I would probably be the only one to find it. 

Besides, I like the word phlegm –  that sly use of “phl” instead of “fl” and that sneakily silent “g”.  I wonder if this word has tripped up spelling bee contestants, who probably know that the word would not be spelled as simply as flem, but would wonder what the trick spelling was.  There are only a few other words in the dictionary that begin with “phl,” basically just phlebotomy, which means to draw blood off, i.e. a blood test, and phlox, a perennial whose bright fuschia flowers are blooming in my garden right now.  Phlegm entered our vocabulary as one of Hippocrates 4 body humours –  blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.  His theory was that an imbalance of humours resulted in disease.  Each humour was produced by a different organ in the body.   Phlegm was produced by the lungs and had a cold and moist quality.  In contrast, yellow bile, for example, was produced by the spleen and was considered hot and dry.  Each humour was associated with a personality type described by a related adjective.

phlegm → sluggish, cowardly (i.e. phlegmatic)

yellow bile →  violent, vengeful (i.e. splenetic)

black bile → introspective (i.e. choleric)

blood → happy generous (i.e. sanguine)   

As much as I like the word phlegm, the adjective phlegmatic is even better.  The syllable break between the “g” and “m” lets that hard “g” come out swinging.  In fact, if you overpronounce the word with a hard guttural “g” you could conceivably produce some phlegm in the process. 

Despite my best efforts over the past several years, I never found the word phlegm and so continued to happily play online Boggle.  And then yesterday it happened –I was coaxed into some sort of Internet Explorer upgrade and in one of those queer internet mysteries, I can no longer open the Boggle website.  Best thing that could have happened.  As this essay clearly illustrates, I am getting way too squirrely.  It is time to move on.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (like post, stop, spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the words will rhyme with either the preceding or following lines.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

The  Peculiar Intersection of Anagrams, Boggle and Saddam Hussein

President Bush said that Saddam Hussein was a big fat —-.

And that his weapons of mass destruction posed a threat that was imminent and dire.

So with shock and awe he launched air strikes to make Saddam nervous,

Trying to destroy the infrastructure including the —- and postal service.

Saddam hid out in an underground —- made of concrete

And tried to organize uprising from his hometown of Tikrit.

He stashed away money, mostly dollars, but also a —-, —-, —- or two

But in the end he was captured like a caged animal without fuss or ado.

Now this last word has nothing to do with Iraq, a point I will concede,

But for completeness sake, botanists know that an —- is the covering of a seed.






liar, rail, lair, rial, lira, lari, aril










liar, rail, lair, rial, lira, lari, aril

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