Weekend Word Wrap: Mad Libs

Recently I've been thinking it would be cool to create a TV show version of Mad Libs, which I adored so much as a kid I think if I added up the cumulative hours spent playing, it might be like an entire year of my adolescence. In doing some research, I discovered there's already been a rather successful children's show, but never a grown-up version.

And while I'm still not entirely sure what the show would be like, I'm getting closer. So if you have words of wisdom - suggestions and such - drop me a comment. In the meantime, after the jump, check out Mad Libs co-inventor Leonard Stern's eloquent musings on the creation of the original. First word-geek to spot the misspelling gets braggin rights! (And yes, the typo comes from Penguin's own website! I didn't add it. -- Oh, and no spell checks, please.)

It was a typical post-Thanksgiving New York day in 1953. I was sitting at my typewriter (we used them in those days), desperately trying to find a new character for the "Honeymooners" show. Roger Price was in the kitchen carving a banana. As I recall, I'd run out of turkey earlier that day. I was stuck on a descriptive passage and called out to Roger for help with an adjective. Before I could define my need, he called back, "clumsy!" I now had a character with a round face, blue eyes, and a clumsy nose. At that moment, or maybe ten seconds of laughter later, Mad Libs® was born.

Roger and I spent the rest of the day creating full-length Mad Libs® which we played at a party that night. Hilarity reigned. Every player was convinced it had to be published. Roger and I didn't think a game without a name was all that marketable. It wasn't until five years later in 1958 that Mad Libs® came to us out of the blue, at Sardi's Restaurant. Abandoning our Eggs Benedict, we were off and running to a publisher. These good souls didn't think it was a book, but honestly believed it might appeal to a game manufacturer. The game manufacturer in turn thought it was a book and sent us to another book publisher, who didn't think it was a book!

After we ran out of publishers and game manufacturers within a fifty mile radius of the city, we unwittingly decided to publish Mad Libs® ourselves. What could it take? You design the book, find a printer, and place the order. So we did that. It never occured to us -- until the printer called, asking us where he should deliver the books -- that printers didn't double as warehouses; however, Roger's Central Park West penthouse apartment could and did. Fourteen thousand copies of Mad Libs® were delivered directly to his dining room, denying my good friend a decent sit-down meal for the next three months and seventeen days!

Once the books were in the stores, I went to Steve Allen, whose show I was writing at the time, and suggested that we try Mad Libs® as a way of introducing our guests. He agreed, and by Wednesday of the following week, the stores were sold out! We needed another printing immediately. Roger held it up until we could find a delivery destination other than his dining room. We made a deal with a publisher -- finally! This relationship lasted until we formed our own company and decided to become our own distributors. Unnerved by the prospect of history repeating itself, Roger moved into a new apartment which did not have a dining room. We had to use his living room!

6 Wordsmiths Who Couldn't Spell

This month marks my 6-year anniversary blogging for mental_floss. It also marks mentalfloss.com's 6-year anniversary in the blogosphere. To celebrate the more than 2,000 daily posts, I'll be republishing some of my favorite posts from these last half-dozen years, starting today, running to the end of the month. Hope you enjoy this stroll down memory lane...

(Originally published on Feb. 3, 2009)

1. Alfred Mosher Butts

Best known for: inventing Scrabble (first called Lexiko, and then later, Criss Cross Words)
But did you know: We owe our Scrabble addictions to the Depression? Butts was an architect who suddenly found himself unemployed. With nothing but time on his hands, he set about to invent a board game (he must have been, er, bored, without work).
So how bad was his spelling? By his own admission, Butts says he wasn't a good speller, and was delighted when his Scrabble score hit 300. Apparently his wife Nina, a former school teacher, usually outplayed him.

2. William Faulkner

faulkner.jpgBest known for: his stream of consciousness technique in such celebrated novels as his 1929 classic, The Sound and the Fury
But did you know: the title of the novel comes from a Macbeth soliloquy? "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
So how bad was his spelling? One of Faulkner's editors at Random House, Albert Erskine, said, "I know that he did not wish to have carried through from typescript to printed book his typing mistakes, misspellings (as opposed to coinages), faulty punctuation and accidental repetition. He depended on my predecessors, and later on me, to point out such errors and correct them; and though we never achieved anything like a perfect performance, we tried."

3. F. Scott Fitzgerald

f-scott-fitzgerald-1921.jpgBest known for: The Great Gatsby
But did you know: The novel didn't sell well during Fitzgerald's lifetime? (fewer than 25,000 copies)
So how bad was his spelling? Preeminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson described This Side of Paradise as "one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published."

4. Ernest Hemingway

hemingway.jpgBest known for: those great stoic characters, like Robert Jordan in the 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls
But did you know: Hemingway was decorated as a hero after being injured during WWI? And served as a war correspondent in both the Spanish Civil War and WWII? (in case you ever wondered how he got all those Spanish Civil War details down so well in For Whom the Bell Tolls)
So how bad was his spelling? Whenever his newspaper editors complained about it, he'd retort, "Well, that's what you're hired to correct!"

5. John Keats

john-keats.jpgBest known for: the 1820 poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn
But did you know: tuberculosis took the young Keats in 1821, at only 26 years of age? The same disease had already claimed his mother and younger brother.
So how bad was his spelling? In a letter to his great love Fanny Brawne, Keats spelled the color purple, purplue. This generated a longer conversation between the two, as Keats tried to save face by suggesting he'd meant to coin a new portmanteaux - a cross between purple and blue.

6. Jane Austen

HI08_JaneAusten_1.jpgBest known for: her elegant novels, like Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813
But did you know: she'd actually written the novel a good 15 years earlier, under the title First Impressions, but the publisher rejected it? (Let this be a lesson to all ye aspiring writers!) Then, after Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, there was interest in the older story, which, after some editing, was eventually published with the title we know today.
So how bad was her spelling? She once misspelled one of her teenage works as "Love and Freindship" and is infamously known to have spelt scissors as scissars.

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>

Phrase Origins: The Real McCoy and On The Wagon

We use these hackneyed expressions all the time (hence the hackneyed element), but where do they come from? I’m reviving the Weekend Word Wrap feature from years ago to take a look at a couple each week or so. First up, The Real McCoy.

The Real McCoy

Our version is actually a variation of the original Scottish phrase dating back to the mid 19th century, “A drappie o’ the real MacKay" What’s interesting here is that the ay in MacKay is actually pronounced like “eye.”
But what about the real meaning? Well, there are a few interesting theories. The first refers to a brand of fine whisky that was made in Scotland in the 1850s and then was marketed as 'the real MacKay' starting in 1870. Another theory involves Elijah McCoy, a Canadian inventor who was educated in Scotland, who invented a successful machine for lubricating engines that wound up spawning myriad copies, all inferior to the original. The design was patented in 1872.

On The Wagon

The term “On The Wagon” also has a few origin stories but my favorite derives from prisoners who were on their way to jail on the back of a wagon. They were allowed one last drink in the local pub before the enforced temperance inside their cells. The other popular one, and the one many say is more accurate (though one can never be sure) is about being "on the water wagon." Back in the day, water wagons would come through town hosing down the streets to keep the dust from getting out of hand. So if you were sitting atop this wagon, you were drinking water, not alcohol.

Have any phrases or expressions you want me to take a look at next week? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Check out past Weekend Word Wraps here.


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