Words & Stuff

q: Off With Their Heads

(27 April 1997)

Every book about wordplay is required (by a little-known law) to contain at least one section pertaining to words which turn into other words when you remove letters. The goal can be to find curtailable words (which you can remove the last letter from and still have a valid word), beheadable words (removing the first letter gives another word), or any of a variety of other conditions (removing from anywhere in the word, repeated removals, etc.). For instance, if you remove the first letter of the word "apathetically," you get "pathetically." (According to the HTMLized version of the rec.puzzles archive, that's the longest English word beginning with A which can be beheaded.) Some words can be recursively beheaded, even down to a single letter; such legerdemain usually requires picking a particular dictionary to serve as the judge of what is and isn't a word. (The archive lists "prestate" as the longest English word that can be repeatedly beheaded down to a single letter.) Some words can be alternately beheaded and curtailed ("ashamed"). There's even a fairly well-known beheadable sentence (if you behead every word, you get another sentence): "Show this bold Prussian that praises slaughter, slaughter brings rout."

Now, I just spent a week in New York, and consequently have been thinking about Queens. (For non-New Yorkers out there, quick quiz: what's the fifth and hardest to remember borough? Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens, and ... ? No peeking.) Coincidentally, I picked this week some time ago to discuss Jim Moskowitz' word category that he calls "The Queen's Game." Given the context, I'm sure it's obvious what these words have in common:


Or is it obvious? The above words are all beheadable, sure, but they share another property as well. These other beheadable words, for instance, don't make the list:


If you want to try and figure out the difference on your own (there's a very clear-cut distinction between Queen's Game words and other beheadable words), don't read any further. (The answer is below rather than on a separate page for ease of discussion.)

"Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves."
The Duchess

Answer: when you behead a Queen's Game word, you get a new word that doesn't rhyme with the old word. (For those uncertain about the technical definition, two words rhyme if all the sounds from the final accented vowel to the end of the word are the same.) Note that this means you can divide Queen's Game words into a kind of rhyming equivalence classes -- groups of words that differ only in first letter, and that rhyme with each other but not with their beheadment. For instance, "bone," "cone," "hone," and "tone" are all members of such an equivalence class; they're Queen's Game words that rhyme with each other and behead to become "one."

Of course, difficulties may arise due to pronunciation variability. For instance, "haunt" beheads to "aunt"; some people pronounce those words to rhyme with each other, while other people don't. And "fuse" beheads to "use," which can be pronounced two different ways. The guideline I've followed on my version of the Queen's Game list is that if each of the words in the pair has a standard pronunciation which doesn't rhyme with a standard pronunciation of the other word, the pair is listed.

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>