Dance of Letters: What are Letter Puzzles and Word Games?

This article is an attempt at trying to communicate what a letter puzzle or "letterplay" is.  This is also known as "recreational linguistics."  Everyone in our culture seems to probably be familiar with crossword puzzles and the game of scrabble and hangman.  Crossword puzzles have rules.  These rules in these types of puzzles (when in poetry or writing) are sometimes called "constraints."  Therefore, writing that employs letterplay, with constraints or rules attached to it has been called "constrained writing."

The game of scrabble has rules, and it seems to have merged the extremely ancient phenomenon of board games (as we have seen in the previous articles) with the crossword puzzle.  But now, in scrabble, the words themselves are printed on the pieces of the game, and are movable and reusable.  They are akin to "movable type," which was invented in China in the middle ages, where the letter components of a printed page are re-usable and movable, and manipulated.  And this invention was key to the invention of the printing press:
Movable type is the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation).
The world's first known movable type system for printing was made of ceramic materials and created in China around A.D 1040 . . .
Around 1450 Johannes Gutenberg made a mechanical metal movable-type printing press in Europe, along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould . . .The printing press may be regarded as one of the key factors fostering the Renaissance and due to its effectiveness, its use spread around the globe. (
Ross Eckler has a PhD in Mathematics from Princeton University, and is a logologist and statistician.  He is also the editor of Word Ways magazine.  In his classic volume Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay, he writes:
It has become increasingly evident that the branch of recreational linguistics that views words as collections of letters to be manipulated is far richer and more subtle than anyone suspected.  It is time to collect widely dispersed results, mostly published in Word Ways, and to show how they relate to each other.  This book is not a history of wordplay . . . but instead is an up-to-date picture of what has been accomplished in the field of letter-play.  (This neologism is introduced to focus on the properties of words-as-letters, in distinction to words-as-phonemes or words-as-carriers-of-meaning.) . . .
Words are the raw material of any book on letterplay, and therefore one must decide at the outset what a word is.  A necessary, but by no means sufficient, definition of a word is one used by computer scientists to process running text:  a sequence of consecutive letters (plus certain symbols such as the hyphen and apostrophe) bounded on the right and left by spaces.  Even this can be ambiguous; is a sequence of numbers a word?  What about a mixture of letters and numbers? . . . (pp. xi-xiii)
In the introduction of Eckler's book, Martin Gardner writes:
Number play explores curious combinations of elements in the formal system of arithmetic.  Wordplay explores curious combinations of elements in the informal system of a natural language . . . 
With such strong similarities between number amusements and recreational logology, it is not surprising that so many mathematicians relish wordplay . . .
Vladimir Nabokov was not a professional mathematician, but there is a close connection between his ubiquitous wordplay and his fondness for chess, a combinatorial game based on the formal system of chess rules.  Nor is it surprising that Ross Eckler obtained his doctorate in mathematics at Princeton University in 1954, specializing in statistics . . . (p. xix)
Gardner, in this introduction to the book, observes many analogies between mathematics, games, word-play and letter-play.  It is perfectly clear why minds that are trained in such areas dabble in and sometimes master these other areas that have so many analogs to what their primary specialization is.  And some of these analogs have actually come together in games such as scrabble, where a physical, three-dimensional game with three-dimensional tokens has joined with the crossword-puzzle.  Yet a crossword puzzle that is done on paper is still a crossword puzzle.  The author of this present article, in his own field of computer science, deals a lot with numbers, data structures, data-hiding and encryption, can find so many analogs to word games in his field as well (especially in what is called Object Oriented Programming).  In all these fields, I see the manipulation of these elements as a "dance."  It is an art form.  It is done recreationally in our day, and it was done for recreation in ancient times.  And Eckler also recognized this, by naming his book as he named it.  But, enough about that.  As you know the real point of this article is to try to convey a definition of what word and letter puzzles are.  Some word/letter puzzles are games.  Other word/letter structures that follow similar patterns are found in writing.  Some authors use them in their novels and so forth.  They all have rules, or what are called constraints.

As we read in quotations from various writings about different kinds of constrained writing or word puzzles, or literary devices, these patterns are intentional, artistic and labor intensive:  "Constrained writing is painful, obligatory, not spontaneous." (Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion
 By Penny Harvey, Eleanor Conlin Casella, Gillian Evans, Hannah Knox, Christine McLean, Elizabeth B. Silva, Nicholas Thoburn, Kath Woodward, p. 167.)  Nevertheless, to some people, despite the pain, computer programming or chess or mathematics is FUN.  To other people, they can't seem to understand how anyone can possibly have fun doing this.  Nevertheless, when the brain is trained to do something (and it wires itself to do so), and does it over and over again for decades, day in and day out, it can be addicting.  Sometimes some people's drudgery is other people's thing that they can't get enough of.  So yes, indeed it is recreational to the people that enjoy it, despite other people who may criticize because they don't "get it."

Eckler writes that in some types of word/letter games, there are "restrictions."  For example, a very ancient type of writing is known as the lipogram, where a writer creates "a literary piece in which a letter is forbidden to appear."  (p. 1).  For example, he might decide that the letter E cannot be used in a whole chapter of a book.  And so, all of the words that are chosen for that chapter are all deliberately words that do not contain the letter E.  Some people think that this is dumb to make such a thing obligatory.  But remember, that to the author, it is art, and it is FUN.

Eckler gives the example of acrostics, which are the opposite of lipograms.  In "acrostical writing, the obligatory letter is placed at the beginning of the word (or line in poetry)." (p. 1).

Here is a calendar acrostic presented by Eckler:

JANet was quite ill one day.
FEBrile troubles came her way.
MARtyr-like, she lay in bed;
APRoned nurses softly sped.
MAYbe, said the leech judicial,
JUNket would be beneficial.
JULeps, too, though freely tried.
AUGured ill, for Janet died.
SEPulchre was sadly made.
OCTaves pealed and prayers were said.
NOVices with many a tear
DECorated Janet's bier. (p.14)
In a Haiku, a very popular Japanese form of poetry, there are constraints, because it has a sort of complex set of rules:
A traditional Japanese haiku is a three-line poem with seventeen syllables, written in a 5/7/5 syllable count. Often focusing on images from nature, haiku emphasizes simplicity, intensity, and directness of expression. (
So, in various types of poetry, you have constraints that are obligatory.  You can choose to break those rules, but then it wouldn't be purely the type of poetry that has those rules.  Nevertheless, sometimes the breaking of a rule in a certain instance gives some desired effect to the poetry.
All traditional poetics make room for what is called the "constraints of meter and rhyme," just as all traditional forms of writing know the practice of "fixed forms," i.e. poetic genres obeying strictly defined and often very sophisticated rules such as, for instance, the sestina.  Nevertheless, without having invented the word itself, it is indeed the OuLiPo that has defined the modern expanded use of constraint as self-chosen supplementary and systematic rule . . .
The constraint was compared to a kind of mathematical theorem, and the textual production that could accompany it was seen as one if its possible demonstrations. (The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, edited by Joe Bray, Alison Gibbons, Brian McHale, p. 117)
Constrained writing is defined as this:
Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern . . .
Constraints are very common in poetry, which often requires the writer to use a particular verse form . . .

Aleatory [is] where the reader supplies a random input. 
And further:
aleatory writing
(L aleatorius , from aleator, alea , ‘dice’) ‘Aleatory’ means depending on the throw of a die, and it here refers to writing (as well as to the composition of music, sculpture and painting) achieved by some random means, by leaving things to chance or accident. (
Music that supplies only the pitches while directing the players to improvise the rhythms freely is a common (partly) aleatoric device which gives the composer a desired degree of control over the tonality, while retaining temporal freedom. (
And further:
This aleatory element can be applied in many fields of art or media creation. Literature for instance is a good example, as writing is helped by imagination, and therefore creativity is present at all times. In this case, aleatoricism can be of great use for creative writing. Imagination conducts the pen of the writer, however aleatoricism is truly what leads the mind, and generates an automatic generation of poetry. When you let your mind run free and random, you let your thoughts go wild and travel to places far away, and you never know what will come out of it.(
Another word that has been used to describe aleatory compositions is "stochastic."  So, there are two essential characteristics in aleatoricism: (1) adaptation of older material and (2) randomization.

In regular "constrained" compositions where randomness doesn't come into play, but are more deliberate creations they may still share the adaptation of previous material in common with something that is aleatory.  So, it is important to note that some techniques may be shared between deliberate compositions and aleatory compositions, regardless of whether an aleatory or random process was at work.

Here are some good examples of modern aleatory or eclectic composition from pre-existing material:  collages or "cut-ups" or composites, or sometimes even "mashups" or "mixes."  Collages can be (1) cut-up assemblages of pictures, or they can be (2) cut-up assemblages of letters or words cut from magazines or books as compositions that are both visual and literary.  This is because, the mixing and matching of different fonts and even sometimes employing pictures may create interesting and pleasing visual effects.  Mashups or "harmonies" can be combinations of material or attempts at harmonization of existing material from more than one source.  Sometimes the word "mix" is what people prefer to use when describing the practice of blending music together.

William S. Burroughs, one of the pioneers of the cut-up technique of creating collages, stated:  "Writing is in fact cut-ups."  For example, much criticism has been leveled at Joseph Smith for using sections of text from the King James Translation in the Bible in the Isaiah quotations Book of Mormon, or for quoting New Testament language in the Book of Mormon to convey a certain type of point.  Anti-Mormons have even pointed to Thomas Dick's book entitled The Philosophy of the Future State and also Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews as the origin of some of the ideas and language found in the Book of Abraham.  But why should these sources not be where some of the ideas originated that sparked the pondering Joseph's mind on the subject, because we know that Paul's statement on baptism for the dead did it for that practice?  Also, it is abundantly clear that Freemasonry sparked Joseph's inquiries to heaven about temple practices, and that he employed Freemasonry as a model to draw upon for some of the material.  Why should this be surprising for other material.  Joseph did this kind of stuff all the time.  In fact, there is little doubt that the Endowment ceremony is a mixing and matching of revealed material as well as Masonic material.  there is no doubt that the Masonic material fulfills its purpose, and stands in the place of where authentically ancient material belongs.  It's not that the ancient Christian endowment didn't have something similar or almost identical to the Masonic versions.  It's just that the Masonic material was serviceable for these purposes, and the people were familiar with it, and it serves its purpose well.  The Freemasonic versions ultimately stem from the same sources.  Therefore, with this legitimacy, why not use it?  For Doctrine and Covenants 138, the New Testament sparked the mind of Joseph F. Smith to receive further revelation.  Drawing on previous material is very common to gain further revelation.

There is little reason to doubt that the language used to convey ideas in Joseph Smith's productions was sometimes lifted or quoted from other sources.  He did it unapologetically, the same as the writers of the New Testament did.  The Doctrine and Covenants borrows from Biblical language just as much as any other scripture, as we saw.   But the Anti-Mormons miss the point.  Paul's writings in the New Testament borrow from the Old Testament to convey the ideas that the language conveys.  Some phrasing in the New Testament borrows from the apocryphal Book of Enoch.  There is every reason to believe that Joseph Smith's translations convey authentically ancient material.  The English language employed, though, is sometimes borrowed from other sources because it is a legitimate art and literary form to re-appropriate material from other sources to convey similar ideas that the original sources convey.  Another popular practice has been for people to make a "gospel harmony."  That means that they blend the varying accounts of Jesus' life together into an "eclectic" mix, drawing from the accounts in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from the New Testament, to make a readable and flowing narrative.  Another recent example is the new "harmony", drawing on the various details from all the different accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision:

And here is an interesting recent criticism of the practice, weighing pros and cons:

Cut-ups and collages and mashups in some sense resemble the game of scrabble, especially when individual letters are employed.  The difference is that in some cases, there is a game played, and in other cases, there is a literary composition.  These things sometimes employ varying levels of randomness, eclecticism or deliberateness.  Sometimes certain sections employ randomness, while other sections employ deliberateness.

And so, in many cases, this adaptation it is the injection of something new and external into a composition that may already exist.  Or it may be to employ elements from an old composition into a new one, to make some sort of hybrid between the old and the new.  At its heart, it is the repurposing of something, where the rules are that some element of the old must be employed.

So, aleatoricism and eclecticism are closely tied to principles of adaptation and substitution.  Like repurposing and adaptation, they allow for transformation of something into something new in a way that may have not been intended before by some originator of older material.  So either the modifier of the material comes up with rules for the modification.  Or the originator may have set up rules for modification, for the bounds within which he intended his creation to be modified by others.

Anyhow, in summary, these are just a number of examples to get the reader's mind working here to try to internalize the idea of what letter puzzles, word games, constrained writing are, and how all of these elements intertwine with each other on so many levels.