Did you know that you can spell the words READ, DEAR, and DARE all from the same set of four letters? You probably don’t CARE. The problem is, I do. I care that I cannot spell CARE with the letters AEDR. I care far more than I’d like to admit. Finding a set of letters like AEDR where you can nail three or more words at a go in the anagrammatic opium den known as Wordscapes is very neurologically satisfying. So satisfying, in fact, that it can become a compulsive habit.
Anagrams cause the brain to move, with varying degrees of difficulty, from the perceptual right-side of the brain to the semantic left-side, from the shapes of the letters to the meaning of the words. The eyes scan the letters and try to imagine them in different sequences and arrangements. This is a fairly difficult visuospatial task when you get into 5, 6 or 7 letters at a time. When they coalesce into a recognizable word, you get an “aha!” hit of digital smack, like finding the right key to an old locked safe with some mysterious contents.
Sensemaking and simple problem-solving tap into our very deep-rooted cognitive routines of the human brain. But therein lies the challenge. You leap to a quick solution—the first word that might pop into your head that’s a match—and you stay there. You encamp on the island of the last word you recognized. If you just found the word CINEMA, you’re now thinking about movies, not blood, nor its level of hemoglobin, which, if you had, might have led you faster to ANEMIC. You have to train your brain to unmoor itself from the solid land of semantic certainty and float off once again, across the corpus calossum, into the uncertain waters of perception again. Our brain doesn’t like new situations and the heightened perceptual scanning that it requires.
I started in on Wordscapes during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, around March or April 2020, when everything was locked down and I had to stay (mostly) inside my house to avoid breathing the viral exhalations of other humans. When the warm weather returned, I started biking and playing tennis more and gave up Wordscapes, recognizing it for the time-suck that it truly is. But when the province of Ontario went into near full lockdown again on January 5th of this year, in response to the Omicron outbreak, it was at the nadir of the cold, dark Canadian winter. There was little incentive to leave the house. I gave up exercising, for which I have no willpower when I am in close proximity to my bed, fridge and tv, and resumed the ephemeral pleasures of my digital crack habit, having forgotten how pernicious it can be.
I don’t care about the numbers. I don’t have a goal or target. If you’re curious, I’m currently at Level 3212. Assuming about 3 minutes per level, that’s 9636 minutes of my life, 160 hours. Nearly 7 entire days of my life. I’m not proud. Nonetheless, my “brilliance” score, whatever that means, is at 141947 and keeps increasing. I have 10538 digital cents in my Wordscapes bank, which I can use to buy hints. I almost never use these. It feels like cheating. It feels like I’m admitting my brain is weak when I buy a hint. I still feel guilty from the last time I bought a letter. Gotta make my brain tough it out. No pain, no gain.
You might assume that the “gain” is that Wordscapes expands your vocabulary. Word games might, quite naturally, stimulate the connections between semantically related words. For instance, the word “dog” is associated with “cat” so you’re more likely to think of “cat” when you hear or see the word “dog” before some totally unrelated word like “keyboard” or “light”. And so hearing a word like “dog” might retrieve a word that you don’t use frequently or barely know the meaning of, not likely “cat” but maybe cur, mongrel, or mutt. But building up semantic and associative relationships between words doesn’t really matter to the pusherman known as Wordscapes. It’s really about spelling words that have lexical validity, which isn’t quite the same as knowing or learning their meaning. Much like in Scrabble, you need to know only that the words exist in an English dictionary, but it is irrelevant if you know their precise definition or could use them skillfully in a sentence. For every good, useful word you might learn (or reacquaint yourself with) in Wordscapes, you pick up a jumble of unrelated words that few would ever use together in a coherent conversation: KNEEL, KEEL, LEEK; EYELID, IDLED, YIELD.
Wordscapes has made it abundantly apparent to me that we also store words in orthographic and phonetic ways (the brain, apparently, makes ample use of metadata when it wants to win at Wordscapes). For instance, if you see the letters UEFT (not a word), you might think of words like DEFT and LEFT because they share three sequential letters in common. Close misses in spelling, I’ve discovered, are great at nudging you towards the real hits, so you should try to spell something that looks orthographically plausible because even if you fail it will get you closer to success. Same with phonetic similarities. If I spell the word VAIN in Wordscapes, I will more quickly think of its homonyms VEIN and VANE, rather than a word that is related semantically to it, like “arrogant” or “egocentric”. I will also think of words like PAIN, MAIN, GAIN, and so on because of their phonetic and orthographic affinities. This sort of pointless phonetic wordplay has become enjoyable and soothing to me.
Like many addicts, my habit makes me moody and temperamental. For snooty word nerds like me, allowing lexically dubious words to “count” in a spelling game causes me to utter out loud four-letter words—perfectly valid English language four-letter words, I should add, that Wordscapes won’t allow. Frustratingly, Wordscapes allows Greek letters (spelled out in English) like THETA and CHI to count as legitimate English words. What is this, a fraternity?
Now, please don’t take me as a linguistic xenophobe. One of the lovely things about the English language is its wide diversity of words of varied origins. Because English is such an old and dominant (some might say “colonial”) language globally, for better or worse, it is not threatened by the incursion of foreign words. Or maybe anglophones are just too lazy to come up with their own terms for things. Whatever the case, the language welcomes and incorporates foreign words all the time. So much so that anglophones are very laissez-fair about the matter: latte, per se, levee, taco, niche, etc. My problem with this is that my particular brain does not file foreign words, especially those with spellings that are quite atypical in English, in the same place as it does the bona fide English ones. Should the word “croissant” or “crepe” be allowed? In the English language, or on my breakfast table, definitely; in Wordscapes, I’d prefer not.
The hideous abbreviations are even worse. Abbreviations are simply not complete words and therefore, notwords. They should definitely not count because they are not in the official dictionary of my old and curmudgeonly head. I grew up pre-internet, shortly after the last ice age, when dictionaries were heavy paper tomes that had to be, in their one-volume “desktop” versions, very frugal with their entries. No half-words were allowed, lest the volume become too cumbersome. If you wanted every imaginable English word ever you could go to the library and consult the great, venerable 20-volume OED. And yet, sadly, Wordscapes is rife (FIRE) with bastard slang half-words. SIS, ADS, OPS, PIC are, I insist, not real words!
Think I’m unreasonable? Hey, the game is called Wordscapes, not Abbreviation-scapes! In fact, Wordscapes should definitely ditch three letter words altogether so that snooty sesquipedalians (look it up, ignoramus) can gain the advantage that is rightly theirs from knowing a lot of long, useless, and esoteric words. Being able to spell FIT, SIT, BIT, LIT and HIT hardly distinguishes the eggheads from the neophytes when it comes to solving anagrams. And, let’s just face it: there are few, if any, interesting three-letter words. This prohibition of three-letter words should definitely be extended to exclamations too. The lexically licentious Wordscapes counts the onomatopoeic EEK, AAH, AHA, YEA, YUM, YUP and so on. How Wordscapes can sleep at night while allowing these horrific and unconscionable words count is beyond me. Don’t even get me started with their handling of proper nouns!
Fortunately, any annoyance I might feel quickly dissolves instantly in the glory of decoding a vowel-deprived word like ATHLETE or a vowel-saturated one like FATUOUS. There is a delight in learning the tricks, like isolating common prefixes or suffixes. Wordscapes especially likes to use past participles. When you see the letters E and D, you discount them from the seven-letter total, and then all you have to do is solve a (much easier) five-letter anagram instead. You find CROWD and then simply convert it to CROWDED. You isolate the prefix UN- and the suffix -ED, and all you have to figure out is AID to create UNAIDED. This is an orthographic slam dunk.
Wordscapes, being fairly clever, tries to thwart these tricks with words that change their spellings when they are turned into related nouns or pluralized, like COPIER or CANDIES. That way you can’t find the longer word by first finding the shorter one. I salute Wordscapes for this clever challenge. To stay on top of our game, addicts like me have to be sensitive to less frequent combinations of letters, such as finding CH, CN, or CR in between two vowels, as in ACHE, ACNE, or ACRE. And you should watch out for plainly odd combos like MB, as in LIMB or LAMB; LK as in WALK and TALK; and KN, as in KNEE and KNIFE. When you’re stuck, it’s often because of one of these atypical letter patterns. I’ve come to appreciate more how very weird and delightfully inconsistent English can be with its spellings.
No matter how many tricks one has learned, eventually everyone gets stuck. You simply stare and stare at the letters and nothing more comes to mind. You’re anchored to the words you’ve recently completed. The semantic, phonetic, or orthographic weight of the words has created a mental schema from which your brain cannot easily break free. You see the letters, but you do not see any new words. You’re tempted to spend your Wordscapes money. At these times it’s good to take a short break. If that’s impossible because a mysterious force compels you to simply never put down your phone, try to take a totally different path. Start trying to spell out words that start with two vowels for instance. You need to break the heterarchy (look it up, clodpoll) in your head. You need to see it with “fresh eyes”, as we say when we really mean to say, “fresh neural connections, preferably in Broca’s area of the left hemisphere, unencumbered by the same presumptive and constraining mental models we had earlier”.
Sometimes, at the beginning of a level, you manage to float in the realm of pure perception, allowing seven letters to combine and recombine effortlessly without your brain imposing any meaning on to the alphabetic shapes…and then you utter the word out loud without even being aware you “saw” it in your brain’s eye. E-D-E-L-Y-I-D suddenly becomes YIELDED. It happens subconsciously fast. Those are the special, delicious hits that keep me coming back.
And yet I am fully aware that my habit is mostly pointless nonsense. Like many drugs, it’s chasing a high for the sake of “scoring” and nothing more. The end of the chase is rewarding in a transient way, but it doesn’t, it’s fair to say, contribute much to the betterment of self or society. Knowing that you can spell EAT, ATE, and TEA from the same set of three letters is not at all edifying. But it’s still oddly gratifying. Perception (WLOF), meaning (FLOW), perception (LFOW), meaning (WOLF), perception (OWFL), meaning (FOWL)…over and over again…withdrawal, hit, withdrawal, hit…
So why not just stop? If Wordscapes has anything redeeming about it, it’s that it is calming. Its virtue is not pedagogical, it is physiological. When your mind is racing at a million thoughts a minute– as mine is…nearly all the time— telling yourself to “stop thinking” is useless. The mind always has to think of something. The only way to stop thinking about one thing is to start thinking of something else. You have to displace the old neural patterns with new ones. And the new thoughts have to be compelling and absorbing enough to prevent you from slipping back into the old thoughts.
Wordscapes makes me think about, well, spelling. And lexicology and phonetics and the interplay between all of these. As pointless as it is, it focuses my mind. It presents its little crossword anagram puzzles against a backdrop of luxuriant landscape photographs. I turn off my Wi-Fi (to avoid the ads), drift into the inviting background scenery, forget the glacial Canadian winter, and listen to soothing classical piano music. Then I arrange and rearrange letters into different combinations, over and over again. Imprisoned in my home, with nothing to do except worry about the quotidian stresses of work, money, health, and family, I now understand how CALM (and, also, CLAM) can be so elusive and so addictive.