(Jack Ognistoff. Reprinted from the West Coast Editor, April 2002)
Have all those editors’ resource books that you vowed to read one day been gathering dust? Is your Elements of Style glaring down at you disdainfully from its lofty place on the bookshelf? Well, you can let go of your guilt. Now there’s an entertaining way to stretch your language skills without stretching to your top bookshelf — namely a language board game called Moot.
Moot, which bills itself as the "world’s toughest language game," seems tailor-made for editors. The game is designed for teams of three or four and consists of 1,008 questions on semantics, etymology, and grammar. It comes complete with a cribbage board and dice.
The questions, graded according to difficulty, are of the yes-no variety (worth between 1 and 6 points) — Is urine pith?* — or the open-ended sort (7 to 12 points) — Use a sartorial metaphor to tell someone to be patient.** So far, it sounds pretty much like Trivial Pursuit, doesn’t it? But there is a crucial difference: in Trivial Pursuit, either you know it or you don’t; in Moot, you can reason the answers out, and the game gives you an intellectual workout that the former memorybased game fails to provide.
This problem-solving process takes the form of an intense debate over the meanings of words, fuelled by overheated minds (and beer). The result: an evening of verbal sparring and "recreational linguistics" which, as Word Ways — The Journal of Recreational Linguistics itself reports, affords "a ...way to learn about the meanings and usages of words, not by solitary dictionary lookup, but by discussion among peers.... Colloquy forms the soul of the game: it forces one to refine one’s ill-formulated ideas in the face of overlooked evidence." Colloquy, indeed, for group dynamics is what drives the game.
Some players are methodical and logical in their approach, examining all angles to a question, while others operate by epiphany, snatching the answers from the great beyond in a flash of illumination. Still others might contribute their expertise in, say, French, to help with Latin-derived words.
In successful teams, such players complement each other: some set up the play from their own end; others take the pass, shoot, and score. Colloquy can give way to contention, however. Players often get testy when they protest an answer, considering it to be "moot." But the game has a bulwark against moot points: the game’s final arbiter of meaning is the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD). The sly, even devious, questions often rest on razorthin distinctions in meaning, drawn from the COD with the subtle (and sometimes exasperating) logic of a Talmudic scholar.
Where did Moot come from?
The game’s inventor, local technical writer Jon Steeves, laughs at some of the fan email he has received over the years. "They think I’m this language god or genius," he states, "when all I really do is consult the COD and regurgitate it."
Far from being a language whiz, Jon admits to having been lexically challenged. He found himself looking up the same words over and over again, to no avail. Even the less exotic words he had assumed he understood often turned out to have a vastly different meaning when he finally bothered to look them up. His solution: transform the dictionary definitions of words into questions, which he could use as mnemonic devices.
A cigar box full of questions later, Jon started toying with the idea of basing a language board game on them. Hopped up with enthusiasm, he would use his friends as a sounding board for his idea, peppering them with proto-Moot questions during long walks. Later, he held full-fledged games at the Simon Fraser University pub and the Press Club, where, through trial and error, he sought to develop criteria for what constituted good questions.
The academic and literary types in attendance were only too happy to oblige, quickly letting him know when a question was marred by faulty reasoning — or just plain stunk. Even after the full set of questions was finalized and on the market, language (or at least lexicographical) change forced its own revisions on Moot. When the ninth edition of the COD came out, Jon had to scrap or rewrite a fifth of the questions to conform to the emended entries. Through the Internet, Moot has found a devoted coterie of players around the world.
*No. Pith is essential; urine, a waste product, is not.
**Keep your shirt on.