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8 Extraordinary Examples of Constrained Writing

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Constrained writing is a catch-all literary term for a whole host of written forms or techniques that limit what or how authors or poets write by forcing them to use a specific set of words, or to work within a strict set of rules or parameters. In simple terms, poetry and even song-writing can be considered examples of constrained writing, since their lines often need to rhyme or contain a fixed number of syllables or beats. Some forms of poetry are naturally more rigid then others—haikus, for instance, fit their 17 syllables into the strict pattern 5–7–5, while all but three of William Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets follow the rhyme scheme ABAB–CDCD–EFEF–GG—but at the most extreme, some forms of constrained writing are even more self-limiting and end up being very, very constrained indeed.

1. MANDATED VOCABULARY

One of the simplest forms of constrained writing is limited or mandated vocabulary, wherein a writer either prohibits certain words or else limits themselves to a particular set or number of words, or to words that fit a particular brief. Doug Nufer’s appropriately-titled 2004 novel Never Again, for instance, didn’t use a single word more than once. Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) by the French novelist Michel Thaler didn’t contain a single verb. And the 2008 novel let me tell you by Paul Griffiths comprised only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

But probably the most famous example of a work of mandated vocabulary is Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs And Ham (1960), which was written in response to a bet between Seuss and his publisher, Bennett Cerf, that he could not complete a story using no more than 50 different words. Seuss returned with a work using only the words a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would and you, and won the bet.

2. LIPOGRAM

A lipogram is a literary work in which a particular letter of the alphabet is intentionally avoided. The difficulty of writing lipograms obviously depends on the frequency of the letter or letters in question (after all, this description entirely avoids using the letter Z without a problem), but things get really tough when it’s the most common letters in the language that are excluded.

None of the more than 50,000 words in Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby contain the letter E, for instance, and nor do any of the words in the French writer Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition—which was translated into English, still following Perec’s original rule, by the writer and critic Gilbert Adair in 1995 and published under the title A Void. Perec later published a novella, Les Revenentes (1972), incidentally, in which E was the only vowel.

3. RHOPALISM

A rhopalic poem or sentence is one in which each successive word is one letter (or, typically in poetry, one syllable) longer than the previous one. Due to the fact that the personal pronoun, I, is only one letter long in English, shorter sentences that follow this rule are fairly easy to construct (“I am now here,” “I do her hair,” “I go and walk there weekly”) but as the sentences get longer, rhopalism becomes an increasingly tough rule to follow. In 1965, however, the linguist and author Dmitri Borgmann came up with a staggering 20-word sentence that followed the rules of rhopalism perfectly:

“I do not know where family doctors acquired illegibly perplexing handwriting; nevertheless, extraordinary pharmaceutical intellectuality, counterbalancing indecipherability, transcendentalizes intercommunications’ incomprehensibleness.”

4. ABECEDARIUS

An abecedarius is a specific type of acrostic poem in which successive lines or verses begin with each letter of the alphabet in order. Geoffrey Chaucer’s 23-verse poem "A. B. C."—written in the 14th century, before J, U and W were even added to the English alphabet—is among the form’s most famous examples.

5. PALINDROME

A palindrome is of course a word (civic, radar, rotator) or a phrase (“don’t nod,” “was it a cat I saw?”) that reads the same backwards as forwards. As a form of constrained writing, however, palindromes can be extended to extraordinary lengths: In his 2012 book, This Is A Book, the comedian and writer Demetri Martin compiled a 500-word poem “about a guy in a strip club who becomes infatuated with two strippers, Tina and Stella.” The entire poem—which opens “Sexes. / Eh, the sexes. / Never even. Still, it’s DNA.”—reads the same backwards and forwards.

6. TAUTOGRAM

A tautogram is an extreme form of alliteration in which all of the words in a sentence or phrase begin with the same letter. Just like a palindrome, it’s a form of constrained writing that can be taken to extraordinary extremes—as in the 1974 novel Alphabetical Africa, by the Austrian-born American novelist Walter Abish.

Chapter 1 of the book contains only words beginning with A. In chapter 2, words beginning with B are introduced alongside the A-words, followed by C-words in chapter 3, and so on, until chapter 26 is entirely unrestrained. The remaining 26 chapters of the book then proceed to restrict the writing, first by removing the Z-words in chapter 27, then the Y-words in chapter 28, and so on until chapter 52, which is again limited only to words beginning with A.

7. PANGRAM

A pangram is a sentence that contains every letter of the alphabet. The most famous example is “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” (which is believed to have originally been introduced in the 1880s as a handwriting exercise, before being picked up by typists and stenographers), while less familiar pangrams include “the five boxing wizards jump quickly” and “jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz.”

“The quick brown fox” runs to a total of 35 letters, although it can be reduced to 33 by replacing the first “the” with “a.” But the aim of pangram writing is obviously to produce as short a sentence as possible, with the ultimate goal being a perfectly grammatical sentence containing just 26 letters. Understandably so-called “perfect” pangrams like these often end up incorporating abbreviations, obscure words, and alternative spellings, but a handful of examples have nevertheless been created, including “Mr. Jock, TV quiz Ph.D., bags few lynx” and “cwm fjord-bank glyphs vext quiz” (a cwm being a Welsh valley, and vext being an old spelling of vexed).

8. PILISH

Pilish is an extraordinary form of constrained writing that straddles the boundary between language and mathematics: Pilish literature is written in such a way that the number of letters in each successive word is equal to the successive decimal places of pi, 3.14159265359…

The first few numbers of pi can be memorized using the mnemonic “How I wish I could calculate pi,” while extra decimal places can be added by memorizing ever longer sentences (“How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics” takes pi to its 14th decimal place). But as a form of constrained writing, Pilish was taken to an extreme by the American mathematician Mike Keith in his 1996 short story Cadaeic Cadenza, which comprises 3835 words all following the decimal sequence of pi (0s are words 10 letters long). As if that weren’t mindboggling enough, in 2010 Keith published the novella Not A Wake—which pushed that total to 10,000.

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Something Something Soup Something
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language
This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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Something Something Soup Something

Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

[h/t Waypoint]

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

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