Words & Stuff

uu: Here's to You, Mrs. Byrne

(25 May 1998)

The game of Fictionary (also known as Dictionary) is played like this:

One player, the word-picker, picks a word (from a dictionary) that none of the other players are familiar with. Each player other than the word-picker makes up and writes down (on a slip of paper) a plausible-sounding definition for the word. (The word-picker copies down the definition in the dictionary, perhaps modifying the wording slightly to throw players off the scent.) All the definitions are handed to the word-picker, who shuffles them together with the real definition and then reads them aloud in a random order. After hearing all the definitions, each player votes for the definition ta thinks is the real one. (You can't vote for your own definition.) A player receives one point for guessing the correct definition and one point for each other player who guessed that ta's definition was the correct one. (In some versions, the word-picker receives a point for every player who didn't guess the correct definition. Also, in some versions a player gets a point if ta happens to create a definition that's extremely close to the actual definition.) The dictionary passes to the next player around the circle, who becomes the word-picker for the next round, and play continues until all players decide to stop.

(A note on cheating: players are on their honor to say so if they know what a chosen word means -- and to avoid voting if they recognize one of the definitions as the correct one. As usual with parlor games, it's possible to cheat -- but that only reduces the fun level. So don't do it, okay?)

As with many long-beloved parlor games, Fictionary has been turned into a boxed-set board game and sold in game stores. Should you feel the need to track it down, the board game is called Balderdash(TM); it provides an unnecessary game board, unnecessary plastic playing pieces, and an unnecessary set of words (with definitions) on cards. I highly recommend the old-fashioned approach of using an ordinary dictionary.

Or a less ordinary one. Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, for instance, is an old favorite of mine for playing Fictionary, though you can't always count on the definitions therein being precisely accurate. (I usually leaf through that dictionary until I find a likely word, then consult another dictionary for verification.) If you don't have a copy already, you can probably find one in any well-stocked used bookstore.

There are plenty of variations of Fictionary. One of the simplest is to alter the scoring system; for instance, one can vote for the definition one likes the most, rather than the most plausible, thereby encouraging word-pickers to choose words with interesting or entertaining meanings. (In my experience, a large percentage of the less common words in most dictionaries are names of obscure animals or plants. I tend to find such definitions boring.)

Another variation is to play by email. The email fictionary game I'm in has been running (except for a year's hiatus) since November of 1994; we've gone through about 45 words in that time.

For instance, a couple years back I chose the word "uliginose." Here are some of the definitions that were submitted:

uliginose. adj. Having a deep, mellifluent quality (said of speech).

uliginose. n. A trisaccharide, C_{18}H_{32}O_{16}, found especially in beets and, to a lesser degree, in carrots and parsnips. [ << Sergei ULIGIN, Russian chemist ]

uliginose. adj. Growing separate above-ground stalks from a common root system.

uliginose. adj. In a state of incomplete or temporary inability to change color, as in chameleons.

uliginose. adj. Loose-boned, limber.

uliginose. adj. Irregular and rounded in shape, as a baroque pearl.

uliginose. adj. Having a tongue fused to the bottom of the mouth, and thus being unable to speak.

uliginose. adj. Muddy, or growing in muddy places.

uliginose. n. A sugar (C9H18O9) occurring in decayed vegetable matter and in trace amounts in low-grade forms of coal.

(The word-picker usually cleans up the formatting a little for consistency. Sometimes people submit etymologies, but not often.)

If you don't already know the word, try to guess which of the above is correct. When you've decided, check the answers for credits. Note that in this email game the winner of one round becomes the word-picker in the next round (and the current word-picker doesn't get points for other players guessing wrong).

Unfortunately, when you only get one vote, many players are reluctant to squander it on an entertaining or interesting (but implausible) definition. One way around that issue, especially for a large group (say, 15 or more definitions submitted) is my alternate scoring system: each player gets a one-point vote and a two-point vote, to be applied to two different definitions. (If you guess the correct definition with your two-point vote, you receive two points; if you guess it with your one-point vote, you receive one point.) We've been using this system for a dozen or so rounds, and it seems to work pretty well.

I could go on, providing lots more examples, and descriptions of some of Jim's variant rounds, and commentary on our game's in-jokes (such as the inexplicable recurrence of yurts in our definitions); but I think this column is long enough, so all that will have to wait for another time.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>