I suspect everyone has played the classic word-game, Hangman, as a kid. How much they’ve played likely depends upon how much they enjoy games and how much they like words. As a lover of words, even as a boy, I really liked Hangman. My grandson, Reed, loves games and loves Hangman, so I have to assume he loves words (but not as much as math … I’m really good at math, he assures me). When I play Hangman with Reed, I’m a good Papa and use words I think he’ll know, but if you, dear readers, were to challenge me, I’d bring out my Hangin’ Words, because I am both a lover of words and a competitive old coot. Most people don’t like to play word games with me. Let me introduce you to my favorite Hangin’ Word right here on Bud’s Blog. Only six letters.
Now, if you are like most people, you’d try A … E … I … O … U. And I’d say, No … nope … nicht … nyet … uh-uh and your game would look like this, one limb away from being hung:
Being an educated reader, you’d remember, Sometimes Y and you’d be here:
You’d probably say, C’mon, there’s no word with three Ys and I’d be a good sport and give you G. If you then made a lucky guess and said, How about S? you’d be here:
The odds are good you’d still hang because it’s unlikely you’ve heard of the word and the last letter is Z. Yes, syzygy, according to the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary is the nearly straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies (as the sun, moon, and earth during a solar or lunar eclipse) in a gravitational system.
According to Wikipedia, Hangman has been around since Victorian times, and has survived even in these politically correct times in spite of the questionable taste of hanging someone for guessing wrong. As a guesser, it helps to know that the most common letters in the English language … in decreasing order of frequency of use … are e-t-a-o-i-n-s-h-r-d-l-u but of course, the word chooser can use the same list to make his choice of words harder. And you might expect that longer words would be harder but not so according to an article on Yahoo Games, which claims that longer words increase the chances that a letter guess will be successful, saving a limb. The article says that words with multiple uses of the same letter increase the odds of wrong guesses, too, particularly if the letter is not commonly used. If you really want to get technical, Jon McCloone of Wolfram Research, the company behind popular mathematical modeling tool Mathematica, developed a computer simulation that guessed at letters of a 90,000 word dictionary in a randomized fashion designed to emulate how a human might guess and discovered that jazz is the hardest Hangin’ Word. You can find some details of his simulation and some of his other Hangin’ Words (like hajj, jazzy and puff) here. I spent as much time as I was willing to invest to understand what he did and it’s not clear that he considered word familiarity. For example, as a jazz fan, if I were lucky enough to guess J A _ _ , I’d probably choose Z next, whereas I might not guess J given H A _ _ (hajj is one of the largest annually occurring pilgrimages in the world, and one of the five pillars of Islam).
So, I’d be sticking with syzygy, except that now that I’ve given away all my secrets, I don’t want to play any more. How about a game of Scrabble?