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VOL. 35 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 7, 2011

Life’s too aphoristic to be cajoled in a game of words

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MEGILPH. Ever heard of it? Neither had I. But there it was. On the “Words with Friends” board, earning my opponent, whose name remains unknown to me, 96 points. With a hard-earned 50-point lead down the drain, I was on my way to another loss.

“Words with Friends” is a smartphone app similar to Scrabble. With players not being in the same room, there’s no provision for challenging a play. If you lay down tiles that don’t make an acceptable word, an electronic message tells you so. And you get another chance.

Thus, there’s a need for some understood rules. The rule I play by is that it’s OK to guess with your letters, but not OK to look up words as you go – no outside assistance!

There are websites devoted to helping people fudge. One such site is Scrabble Cheat-O-Matic. At that site you may enter up to eight letters and a logarithm will give you all words that may be made from them.

Using such sites is not fair, unless players have agreed ahead of time. What’s-his/her-name and I had not agreed. And yet I had become suspicious.

For MEGILPH was but another in a series of unusual words this person had used in beating me, game after game.

There are words one might be expected to come up with via trial and error. Or to pull from the recesses of one’s memory. COSH, for instance, is a British blackjack. It has been in crosswords. Its letter patterns (COS and OSH) are not unusual. It’s not a word I think of, but it beat me more than once.

YERBA is another such word. It’s an herb of some sort used in Mexican tea, I think. It also has been in crosswords. Its patterns are not extraordinary. But it lurks nowhere near the top of my head.

Even further removed from my consciousness lies CEDI, Ghana’s monetary unit. But CEDI was in a crossword. One, in 1999!

And then there’s MEGILPH! Researching it, I discovered:

It’s a variant spelling of MEGILP.

No other word has the pattern GILP.

It’s a gelatinous preparation of linseed oil and varnish used by artists

It’s never been in a crossword! Never! Not with either spelling.

Six of this word’s letters may be arranged to spell PHLEGM. By playing PHLEGM, my opponent could have scored more than 30 points and tightened up the game quite a bit.

But playing all seven reaped a 35-point bonus. MEGILPH spanned a triple-word score. The four-point M landed on a triple-letter score. Plus one of its letters made a new word of a vertical term in place. Ninety-six points!

Via WWF’s text-message feature, I asked my opponent, “Where’d you learn this word?” The reply: “Much of what I learn is through trial and error.”

I would more readily have believed “I am a savant and have read the unabridged dictionary.” I resigned the game and declined future invitations to play with that person. Life is too short to cheat or be cheated in a game of words.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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