Descartes believed that monkeys could speak, but that they preferred to remain silent in order not to be forced to work. The intellectual process of granting reality to an invention and then applying to that invention the rigid rules of reality is nowhere more splendidly demonstrated than in our relationship to language. Long ago in a faraway desert, a man of whom we know nothing decided that the words he had scratched onto clay were not conventional accounting signs numbering legal decrees or heads of cattle, but the terrible manifestations of a willful god, and that therefore the very order of these words, the number of letters they contained, and even their physical appearance must have a sense and a meaning, since the utterance of a god cannot hold anything superfluous or arbitrary. The cabbalists took this faith in the literary act even further. Since (as The Book of Genesis recorded) God had said, "Let there be light" and there was light, they argued that the very word light possessed creative powers, and that if they knew le mot juste and its true intonation, they could become as creative as their Creator. The history of literature is, in some sense, the history of this hope.
Wordplay enthusiasts are less interested in imitating the Almighty and less confident in the magical powers of the Word, but equally concerned with discovering the secret rules that govern a system of signs and symbols. Like the ancient cabbalists, they permutate, count, rearrange, divide and reassemble letters for the sheer delight of drawing order out of chaos. Behind the passion of crossword puzzle solvers, punsters, anagrammatists, palindrome makers, dictionary scourers, Scrabble players and code breakers lies a kind of mad faith in the ultimate rationality of language.
I recently happened upon a book by that wordsmith extraordinaire, Ross Eckler: Making the Alphabet Dance: Recreational Wordplay (St. Martin’s Press), an impressive catalogue of the ways and means by which this rationality may be teased out. Though Eckler is concerned with contemporary efforts, some of these word games are ancient. There are examples of acrostics among the Mesopotamians, anagrams among the Hebrews, pangrams among the Greeks, palindromes among the Romans. Puns, which reveal behind their at times doubtful humour the web-like coherence of the cosmos, are universal. At least according to St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible, the founding of the Catholic Church is based upon a pun made by Jesus when He said, pointing to Peter (Petrus in Latin), "Upon this stone [also petrus] I will build my church."
Eckler’s book is delightful in its richness and the word games he lists are wonderfully ingenious: texts that eschew one or several letters of the alphabet (such as Georges Perec’s novel La Disparition, brilliantly translated into English—A Void—by Gilbert Adair, which excludes in both languages the letter e); texts that avoid all vowels except one ("I’m living nigh grim civic blight; / I find its victims, sick with fright"); tautonyms, or words made up of two identical parts (such as murmur), which in turn develop into the highly sophisticated "charade sentence" ("Flamingo pale, scenting a latent shark / Flaming opalescent in gala tents-hark!"); transposal words obtained by rearranging the letters of another word (carol to coral); three-way homonyms, the scourge of foreigners learning English (idol, idle and idyll), "undominated" words in which an alphabetic sequence can be found containing all the letters in that sequence, when no word exists with a longer sequence of those same letters (as in deft).
The fact that many of these classifications are also hugely entertaining should not lead anyone to ignore or question their seriousness. Poets, for instance, have long used them: from Lasus of Hermione, who in the sixth century B.C. excluded sigma from his "Ode to the Centaurs," to Cervantes, who included in his preface to Don Quixote a few "truncated" sonnets (in which not the final but the penultimate syllable of each line carries the rhyme), and from Gerard Manley Hopkins and his fondness for charade sentences ("Resign them, sign them"), to the anonymous bard who penned "Time wounds all heels." Poetry, in fact, is proof of our innate confidence in the meaningfulness of wordplay. That we should trust rhyme to lend meaning or alliteration to express a thought is not too far from the spirit of the Renaissance necromancers who believed that the secret name of Rome was Roma spelled backwards.*
Martin Gardner, in his brief introduction to Eckler’s book, notes that much of the new wordplay "would not have been made without the help of computers" but adds that he does not want to "give the impression that computers are required for making new discoveries." Indeed. Though computers can tell us (for instance) that there are 3,276 ways in which three letters can be chosen from the alphabet with repetition allowed, such mechanical methods provide, I believe, scant entertainment to either seasoned lexicophiles or inveterate cabbalists. At the dawn of the computer age, Arthur C. Clarke penned a warning. In a short story called "The Nine Billion Names of God," a Tibetan lamasery engages the services of Western computer experts to run through all possible combinations of letters in order to come up with one that is the hidden name of God—a task, these Tibetans believe, that lends reason to the existence of the universe. The experts install the computer and over several months it spews out countless jumbles of names. At last the final combination is produced. As the experts pack up to leave, one of them casually looks up at the sky. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars are going out.
*What hope is there for Vancouver, which magically reads Revuocnav—"Revue of Knaves" in the Evenko tongue—or Toronto, which reveals itself as Otnorot—"The Rot of Otno" in Esperanto? (Note: "Otno" is the name given to Premier Mike Harris in the Esperanto community.)