Parenting: The Dictionary Game

David Murphy says a very large dictionary is best for The Dictionary Game, an amusing family activity.

December 22, 2010 6:41:59 AM PST
Times are tight. Here's a game the family can play that may not cost you a dime.

All you need are some scraps of paper, a few pencils and a large dictionary, the larger the better. Of course, in this day of computerized spell check and Microsoft Word, some of you may no longer keep a hard copy dictionary in the house, but check the old bookshelves or ask around the neighborhood until you come up with one. Again, bigger is better. Then, gather the family around. Kids in the latter half of grade school who know how to read relatively well can play, and younger kids can hang around for the laughs.

Each player takes turns being the leader of the game. The leader grabs the dictionary and combs it for a word that no one in the group can identify. You might think this is impossible. But you'll be surprised by how many strange words there are in the English language. Checking my medium-sized Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary just now (yes, I still keep one in my desk), I was able to come up with cassia, ephemeron, gleed, poniard, sennet, thrawart, and zucchetto in about two minutes. Spell check doesn't know three of them and I'm betting most of you know even fewer. Use one of those giant 3,000-page dictionaries and you'll find weird, unknown words on nearly every page.

After announcing the word and ascertaining that none of the players knows it, the leader writes down the definition on his or her piece of paper, while the rest of the players jot down their own made-up definitions on their own paper scraps. Everyone hands their entries to the leader who reads each definition out loud. The players then choose which they think is the real definition.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. Take gleed.

A) An entry-level seaman in the Roman Navy

B) A burning coal

C) A laceration found on the back of certain South American toads

D) A rumor, spread with ill-will

E) A Scottish head piece, traditionally worn on Arbor Day

Well, brainiac? Read on for the answer.

The leader starts with ten points and then loses one point for each correct guess any player makes. For example, if three players guess the correct definition, the leader only receives a score of seven (ten minus three). The players, on the other hand, score points if someone votes for their fake offerings, one point for each person they fool. Play continues until all players have had a chance to be the leader once. Scores are then added-up and a winner is declared. Ties are possible.

The biggest problem, in my experience, comes when the leader is forced to read crackpot definitions. In fact, people who do well at this game are usually good actors who can keep a straight face. Occasionally, you'll have a turn where almost all the definitions (including the real one) sound ludicrous. Other times, you'll be impressed with how well everyone has done in coming up with authentic-sounding definitions.

Certain game companies have, at times, tried to develop games based on this idea and you're welcome to shell out $15 or whatever if you want to. But my family taught me the above "free" version years before anyone marketed the idea. We called it, "The Dictionary Game", and it never failed to make holidays and family get-togethers a little more fun.

And by the way, if you guessed "B", give yourself a point!

---David Murphy

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