Monday, July 31, 2006

Bringer of Jollity

Last night, Kristin, Jim, Melanie, and I gathered at Todd and Mia’s house. The evening’s purposes were threefold: to begin the process of saying good-byes (half of those present will be gone rather permanently from Ithaca within a week, and the rest will be gone less permanently within a month), to eat dessert (no explanation necessary), and to hold the inaugural game of the recently invented Abstractionary.

Abstractionary, as its name implies, is a kind of Pictionary™ with abstract concepts. It was created by Jim, Melanie, and Kristin as a wedding present for Todd and Mia. The rules are rather loosely written, by intent, so I’ll describe the game as we played it. We split into three teams; on each round one team draws and another team guesses. If the guessers hit exactly on the word, both teams get 5 points; if a variant is guessed, both teams get 3 points; if a synonym is guessed, both teams get 1 point. If the word is not guessed, the remaining team could try to “steal” for 3, 2, or 1 points, according to the same system as before. The first team to 12 points wins the game.

As one might expect, the game quickly turns to a sort of pictorial charades. The first word was “villainous”. It’s not difficult to get plain ol’ “villain”; a stick figure with a handlebar moustache standing next to a railroad track suffices. But there’s that stipulation about exactness in the rules, so we kept going to try to get the last syllable. How does one convey an adjective? I’m sure there are lots of effective ways, but we simply tried to generate the word “us”. I drew a picture of two groups with an arrow between them, to represent “us” and “them”, then marked out the arrow and circled the first group. This picture didn’t make much sense at the time, but it became the standard way to represent the syllable “-ous” over the course of the game. 3 points that round.

Later, we had to draw “effervescent”. A glass of bubbly water accurately represented the concept, but was useless for eliciting guesses. We broke down the word into constituent syllables. “Scent” was not hard, with a nose and a flower. Since we’re all teachers, a piece of paper with lines of text and marks suggested “grading”, and a large X over the page with a sad face adjacent eventually led to “F”. Unfortunately, these clues were not enough to lead to a correct, or even relatively nearby, guess. No points that round.

“Self-referential” was not nearly as difficult as the drawing team initially feared: a stick-figure with a curved arrow leading both away from and back towards the figure finished that off. “Sadistic” led to some interesting pictures of intercontinental ballistic missiles (going for the rhyme, you know), although it was the person in manacles being whipped which succeeded. There was a curious occasion of splitting the single syllable word “hope” into two parts: “hoe” and “pea”, which almost succeeded.

Possibly the most educational round occurred with “jovial”. A cup of coffee (“java”) was intended to compound with a test tube (“vial”) to make the word, but we never got the second half. The coffee led to a happy face, which took us to “joy” and all its variants. (I thought the idea was that coffee brings joy—a sentiment I have often expressed in the office.) At the end of the round, a debate ensued as to how synonymous “joyous” and “jovial” are, and whether they have a common etymological root, given how similar they appear. (We eventually got 1 point for the synonym.) This was a perfect occasion to use one of my new favorite websites: the Online Etymology Dictionary.

You can check out the entries on joy and jovial for yourself if you like, but I’ll summarize the discussion here. “Jovial” comes from “Jove”, that is, Jupiter; “Jupiter” in turn comes from two roots, meaning “god” (related also to the French dieu and the Greek Zeus) and “father” (like pater). That’s right: Jupiter is the Godfather. “Joy” comes from the Latin gaudere, meaning “to rejoice”. The etymologies of the words are completely unrelated. But the meanings are indisputably similiar. After all, Holst subtitled the “Jupiter” movement of The Planets with “Bringer of Jollity” (“jollity” also arising from the root gaudere).

This discovery led into a discussion of favorite etymological coincidences. Jim said he’s seen the similarity of the English day and the Latin dies given as an example of how words with a similar meaning and a similar appearance may not have the same origins: day probably comes from a root meaning “to burn”, whereas dies comes from a root meaning “to shine”, also related to the root of dieu mentioned above. I personally like the fact that Latin has the same word—liber—for both “book” and “free”, even though their origins are completely different.

The game was exceedingly entertaining. A few wrinkles had to be smoothed out: the rules stipulate that which teams play in each round be determined by the digits of some irrational number. We chose π (pi, if the character won’t display properly for you), and since we had three teams, took the digits modulo 3. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for adjacent digits in π to be equivalent mod 3 (so that a team would be drawing for itself), nor for one team to be neglected for long stretches if we took the digits in their strict order. We stayed flexible on this point, so that everyone got a fair chance. The tag-team drawing was an on-the-spot innovation, and worked quite well most of the time.

If it weren’t for the game of Math Charades that a group of freshmen started up at a Christmas party last year, Abstractionary would probably also be the nerdiest game ever played in that house.


jhb said...

Interesting that you picked the coffee to mean "java". For "jovial", I would think that the coffee cup would be the "jo" part of jovial, as in a cup of joe.

Anonymous said...

Mito and I used to play this game. No points. My favorite was "ephemeral." I think after 20 mins he got it.


Anonymous said...

PS. In our game you couldn't play with "sounds like" or split into syllables like most of yours seemed to be solved. You could only represent the actual concept. MUCH tougher than one might think.

jpb said...


Yeah, we were playing with a 2 minute timer. But your way sounds fun, with no time limits but also no charades-type communication. I'll suggest it to my fellow players.