Rascals, Lascars, and Scholars
For quite a few years my
sister-in-law had been sending me a word game, or "puzzle," as they
called it, from the New York Times magazine. The game consisted of a
small circle with a letter inside it surrounded by a larger circle
with a letter inside it, surrounded by a larger circle divided
into six equal compartments, each with a different letter inside.
Using these seven letters, and only these seven letters, you were
challenged to make as many words of five letters or more as you could.
Proper nouns were not allowed, nor hyphenated words or contractions.
The letter in the center had to be used in every word.
When the pandemic came along, I
found myself wanting more of these word games. But all I could hope
for was one a week. So I made up my own word game, which is very
similar to the New York Times version. In my game, you simply think of
a word with seven different letters, no more, no less, and use the
letters of that word, which I like to call the "seed word," or
"breeder word," to make as many words as you can. My game is the same,
otherwise, as the New York Times game, except that in my game you
don't have to use a certain one of the letters in every word. Some
seed words are, or course, more fruitful than others. I try to avoid
using words with a "q"or a "z" or an "x." I try to think of seed words
that have a preponderance of well-used consonants and vowels.
Some breeder words produce a
surprising number of offspring. The word 'hectares,' for example,
is a very prolific word maker. When I thought of the word 'scholar,' I
could tell by looking at it that it too would be a good breeder. One
of the words it produced was a word I had not seen or heard for
decades. The only time I had ever encountered the word 'lascar' was
while reading a Sherlock Holmes story as a teenager. It was the first
and only time I have ever had a brush with the word. As soon as it
popped up on my internal screen, I began recalling some of the details
in "The Man with the Twisted Lip." One of the inhabitants of the house
in the story was mentioned only as a "lascar," who lived in the
shadows and was never described. I remember thinking that it might be
a word invented by Conan Doyle. I also remembered having concluded
that it was likely a word brought back from the fringes of the British
Empire. Recently someone looked it up, and it turns out that a
"lascar" is a sailor from India or Indonesia. No mention of him being
a shady character, which was the impression I had while reading the
story. For many years my subconscious had associated lascars with
Playing this word game has helped
me discover quite a lot about the condition of my vocabulary. Words
that had been hiding in the back of my word bank vault, behind
Grandma's possibly gold bracelet, have been suddenly recalled to life.
Having dredged up a lot of forgotten words, "miasma," "arcana,"
"inanition," and "plethora," to name a few, has not, however, given me
the desire to use these words again. They have somehow crossed over
into the realm of the obsolete.
Many of these words bordering on
the archaic are perfectly good words that ought to be used now and
then. But many of them do seem, at least to me, to be slowly moving
into the realm of the archaic. Other words that have cropped up while
playing the game, such as 'midden' and 'dolmen' are truly archaic,
having lost their usage after the middle ages.
Whether or not my word game has
any value other than the fun of it, certainly it is better than
reading the dictionary. The forgotten words pop up in unexpected
places, and for a moment I feel like I have run into an old
acquaintance on the sidewalk. In any case, my word game has served as
a breath of fresh air on the voyage of rediscovery.