Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Word Games' Category

Will Shortz and ‘Wordplay’

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Forgive me for not getting back to the blog any sooner. It isn’t for lack of interest; just conflict with the holiday rituals.

I promised a review of Will Shortz’ documentary film Wordplay upon my return and I am prepared to do that now. I think I can sidestep my jealousy at this point. Yes, Dr. Goodword is jealous of two people: Richard Lederer and Will Shortz. Both succeeded in making a living playing with words while I was laboring away in a Chomskyan framework trying just to understand them.

I really enjoyed meeting the people who write and work crossword puzzles. Crossword puzzles are an enjoyable intellectual challenge, which is why we carry several types of them on our website. (Our New Year’s resolution will be to update them more frequently.) However, this film is less about crossword puzzles than about the people who write them and the famous people who work them (Jon Stewart, President Clinton, Ken Burns, and the Indigo Girls among others).

The central figure in the film is Will himself, reading his mail, reading a puzzle to a participant on his PBS radio program, and emceeing the 28th Annual Crossword Competition in Stamford, Connecticut—nothing to produce a thrill a minute. As much as I love words and people who love words, I had to fast-forward several times to be able to say watching the film was time well spent. The problem is that the film is about the people who write and work crosswords with little said about the fascinating world of words itself.

The bulk of the film focuses on a competition for the fastest crossword puzzle solvers in the country. I’m not sure how anyone can enjoy words when their goal is to spit them out as fast as possible. I write Good Words to be savored; maybe that it my problem with the film. In the past 20 years of this competition, only 7 of the 400-500 people who compete each year have won. Are these people with rich vocabularies? Interesting lives? A better understanding of the world around them? As best I could judge, they just solve crossword puzzles faster than anyone else, a kind of lexical athlete.

Interesting documentaries about words can be made. American Tongues and the PBS series The Story of English are fascinating but, of course, they are not about puzzles. The spelling bee movies, Bee Season and Spellbound are fascinating. Granted they are not documentaries but they show how films based on words can capture your attention. Perhaps a history of crosswords from the Romans (Greeks?) onward would work. But the people who write them, talking about themselves and each other, is not the sort of excitement that even logophiles expect of the American film industry today.

My favorite crossword puzzle film is an unrated (so help me) four-part BBC series starring Alan Bates and Sinéad Cusack called Oliver’s Travels. The wordplay is the witty banter between the two main characters as they search for the legendary British crossword creator “Aristotle” from London to the Orkneys. Of course, the problem here is the fact that crosswords are in the background—but maybe that is where they should be. In order to make this film exciting, thriller plot was added in which an evil empire chases the heros, taking (real) potshots at them along the way.

OK. I’m not sure how to make an exciting crossword or word puzzle thriller and I am glad to have made a one-sided acquaintance with the foremost word puzzler and the fastest crossword puzzle workers in the country and I’ve already admitted that I am jealous of the star of this film. But whatever my motivation, I still think a golden opportunity was lost.