June 29, 2018

Words of the Month - Babble

        If you like words, you should be Babbling.  The basic gist of this on-line word game is a grid of letters like Boggle (1).  You build words by going from tile to tile.  You can go in any direction, but the tiles must touch, and you cannot use the same tile more than once per word.  Unlike Boggle, in which you have three minutes to find as many words as you can, in Babble you have 24 hours to find every possible word (2) in the grid (but only words 4 letters and longer).  Points are scored more like Scrabble, because each letter has a point value, which you add up for the word.  Furthermore, 4-letter words are worth the total point value x1, 5-letter words are the point value x2, and so on.  The points are used to give clues to words more than as a scoring system, because players are really not competing against each other.  Everyone who finishes wins equally, and because, after all, it’s just a game, players set themselves all different goals and all different constraints.  Some people finish the grid every single day, some never bother to finish at all.  Some use all sorts of word lists and ask each other for clues for difficult words, while others refuse all aids.  There’s also a “clue” list (3) you can access that gives the first two letters and the point value of each word.  (My personal rules are that I will not use word lists and I will never ask for clues, but I will happily use clues that are given when other people have asked.  I will not go to the “clue” list until I have at least 80% of the words found, preferably 90% or more, and have run out of time.  I can’t stand not finishing a grid, so if it’s a long one or I have a busy day and don’t think I’ll be able to finish, I just don’t start at all that day.)
        So that’s the outline of the Babble game and I highly recommend it to all who enjoy word games, but I find that there are some interesting linguistic issues associated with it, too.  First of all, it uses a rather outdated dictionary called Enable, which has some interesting (and irritating) quirks.  For example, there are words that it simply doesn’t accept, from henge, to, ironically, internet.  Its selection of foreign words is erratic.  It accepts all kinds of world currencies, which are certainly unfamiliar words that players tend to complain about bitterly, but are perfectly legitimate because they are, after all, the words that speakers of English use when referring to currencies.  But Enable also includes titles from a variety of languages, including senor, sieur, monsieur, and even Portuguese senhor and Dutch vrouw, which don’t seem at all English to me… while it rather pointedly does not accept herr, frau, or any German words.  It accepts all manner of Scottish dialect words, but not, for example, Irish sidhe.  This just goes to show that putting together a dictionary is not as straightforward as many people assume, and is very much a matter of decisions about what to include or not.
        The second interesting point about Babble is the linguistic discussions that sometimes crop up in the the chat log (4).  The chat log is a special feature of the game, and the players give each other clues for difficult words, banter, share recipes, pour out their hearts to each other, offer endless sympathy and puns, and are, in short, a surprisingly close community.  People frequently complain about the eccentricities of the Enable dictionary, but another interesting discussion that comes up with some frequency concerns the “bad words” that Enable accepts.  These range from explicit slang and swear words to all manner of derogatory terms.  In a grid that contains such words, players will often remark that they “shouldn’t be allowed.”  The answer, of course, is that they are words.  No matter how much we wish they weren’t or that no one would ever use them, as long as people use them, they remain part of the English language.  So this comes down to the prescriptive vs descriptive dictionary debate.  Should the dictionary include only the words that someone decides people should use, or all the words that people do, in fact, use?  If we acted as if these words didn’t exist, would it help them go away?  It’s interesting to me to see speakers engage in issues like this.  A tendency that I find far less endearing - in fact, downright infuriating - is Babble players’ tendency to label words “stupid.”  For some players, any time they ask for a clue for a word that they are not personally familiar with, they complain, “That’s a stupid word.”  Usually these are perfectly good words, just used in specific fields or circumstances, and I always want to reply “It’s not the word that’s stupid; it’s you.”  But I don’t.  In all seriousness, I find it deeply disturbing that so many people (not all) automatically respond to the unfamiliar with dismissive insults instead of curiosity, rational thought, and a desire to learn.
        Finally, the Babble community has, over the years, come up with jargon of its own.  The game has been around for 14 years now (my thirteenth Babbleversary is coming up in August!) and over the years a variety of specialized Babble vocabulary has evolved.  Here are a few of the words coined and used in the Babble chat log:
babblet - noun, a word that appears quite commonly in the Babble grid, but almost never in ordinary conversation.  It’s a word that most of us know only because of Babble, such as anoa, naoi, and teiid.
firewords - exclamation, a variant of fireworks, which means you’ve completed the grid and deserve celebration.  Other variants include firebirds, fireflies, and fw.
fish - noun, an easy word that you feel really stupid for not having been able to find without help.  It derives from the phrase “Hit me with a fish.”
listless - adjective, it does not mean lacking energy or enthusiasm.  Rather, it is finding all the words without ever using the “clue” list of first two letters of each word, and it probably indicates that you actually had excess energy and enthusiasm for the grid!  To list is also used as a verb meaning to use the list.
monkey - verb, to type in “random” combinations of letters in the hope that something will turn out to be a real word.  This began as a reference to the idea that a room full of monkeys typing randomly would be just as likely to find all the words in the grid.  People will say “I just monkeyed a 6-letter word,” or “There’s been a lot of monkeying on this grid.”  Related idioms include such sayings as, “The monkeys are really working hard today,” and “I think my monkeys need more bananas!”
pull a peri - verb, to ask for a clue and then immediately find that word by yourself; named for Babbler Periwinkle, who is particularly prone to it.
        Here are a few more bits of Babble trivia: the largest grid on record included 744 words, while the shortest had only 10!  (Most are in the 90-250 word range).  There’s never been a word longer than 13 letters, and the word that has appeared in more grids than any other, about 14%, is rete (a babblet for me).
        When I first discovered Babble, I was home with two preschoolers all day and the Babble chat community was my lifeline to the world, a precious opportunity to converse with adults even when I couldn’t leave the house.  I still play most days, but in recent years I have chatted ever less and less, so that now I almost never comment, except very rarely to offer a clue if someone seems sufficiently desperate.  But if you do join the Babble community, feel free to say hello.  I’m Vicuna (5), known as Vi to my best Babble buddies back in the day.  You will be welcomed!

[Pictures: Babble screen;
Monkeying, engraving of a New World monkey from 1860 + Underwood (1923), rubber block print by AEGN, 2011.]

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