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Weekend Word Wrap: Mental Jotto

For those word game lovers out there who've had the privileged of knowing Leonard Bernstein (or any of his friends or family) or, alternatively, read my novel Behind Everyman, you already know how to play Mental Jotto.

For those who didn't know him or his posse and haven't read my book (and judging by my Random House quarterly statements, that's most of you), it's time to learn one of my favorites.

IMG_38921.JPGFirst the background: As far as I know, this variation of Jotto was invented by Leonard Bernstein. So if you can't prove me wrong, we'll give the maestro the props. The original Jotto was was invented in the 50s by Morton Rosenfeld and put out by Jotto Corporation. The version I bought off eBay some years ago (pictured here) says Copyright 1972 by Selchow and Righter, so my assumption is they bought Rosenfeld out.

The object of the game: to guess your opponent's secret word. (The only real difference between Mental Jotto and the paper/pencil version is that with the former, the only thing you have to work with is your brain. So it's a) harder! and b) perfect for long drives or flights, or anywhere you need to pass some time.)

How you play: One player picks a secret 5-letter word. Any 5-letter word will do, but it mustn't contain any repeating vowels or consonants. Why? It'll be obvious by the end of this post.

1. Once you have a secret 5-letter word, your opponent must guess the word by offering up 5-letter words of his/her own.
2. For example: Let's say you and I are seated next to each other on a plane and strike up a conversation. After some time, I decide to teach you Mental Jotto, because, I'll admit it, I'm actually rather boring off-blog and wouldn't have much to say to you otherwise. Okay, so we decide to play and it's my job to come up with a secret word and your job to guess it.
3. So my secret word is plane "“ P-L-A-N-E "“ plane. (Notice: no repeating vowels or consonants, each letter appears only once.)
4. You try to guess my word by figuring out how many letters in your guess word are also in my secret word. So you offer, say, the word stump. You say, "David, how many in the word stump?" Meaning, how many letters are in common with my secret word.

5. I say, "Well, planepal, (I just coined that: it's your pal for the duration of a flight who, afterward, you'll never speak to again as long as you live), there is one letter in common with my secret word." Namely, the P, but you don't know that yet.
6. Next, trying to eliminate letters in the alphabet, you say, "And how many are in the word stamp?" By substituting the letter A for the letter U, you might learn something.
7. I say, "Two." Because hey, now we have the P and the A in common. By this point, you should know two things: first, that there's no U in my word. And second, that there's an A in my word.
8. If you then offer: "How many in the word stomp?" I change my answer from two to one, and you now know my word has no O in it.
9. The smarter you are, and the better your memory, the sooner you'll eliminate all the letters that aren't in my word and come up with the five letters that are in my word. Chances are, you'll probably get an anagram first, like NEPAL, or PANEL or PENAL. But it doesn't matter.
10. Because when you next ask, "How many in the word panel," I have no choice but to say, "Five!" "“ and it's just a matter of time before you do the anagram and hit on plane.
11. Besides getting my secret word, obviously one of the challenges in Mental Jotto is to figure out the letters in as few guesses as possible. (In the paper and pencil version they give you 35 tries.) That's why a strategy like the one I started above, Stamp, Stump, Stomp, etc., helps because you're focusing in on the vowels first. It's much harder if you just start with random words in the beginning like, "How many in Egypt? How many in viola?" etc., because one guess doesn't inform the next.
12. Now, why can't you pick apple as your secret word or your guess word? Because if I were to ask, "How many in plant?" What would you say, three or four? It's too confusing and too misleading.

I never had the chance to play the game with Bernstein, but he was known for playing in multiple languages at the same time. Which meant the secret word could be in Spanish, French, English, etc. One never knew!

For an even harder version of the game, try 6-letter Mental Jotto. It's killer!

I know we've never written instructions on the blog before, so if you have questions, by all means, drop them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer quickly. Meanwhile, Jot on word lovers, Jot on. And if you're ever seated next to me on an airplane, don't hesitate to invite me to play, or at least offer me some gum.

Check out all past Weekend Word Wraps>>

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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>>

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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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