Friday - - Mind Games -

A thing that is earnestly pur­sued and sought af­ter, but largely con­sid­ered unattain­able, is a holy grail.

Is there one for word lovers and puzzlers? A 10-let­ter word square would be one – it is a set of words writ­ten out in a square grid, such that the same words can be read both hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally.

For less avid puzzlers an­other such grail would be find­ing a sen­tence that uses only com­mon dic­tio­nary words, makes per­fect sense, and uses each let­ter of the al­pha­bet just once – in short, a 26-let­ter pan­gram (as such a sen­tence is called).

Most read­ers are fa­mil­iar with ‘A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, a pan­gram­matic phrase that dates back to the 19th century, used to show fonts and to test type­writ­ers (and now com­puter key­boards), and in other ap­pli­ca­tions in­volv­ing all of the letters in the English al­pha­bet. Ow­ing to its brevity and co­her­ence, it has be­come widely known. But alas! It has 33 letters, 11 more than the limit.

The Guin­ness Book of World Records car­ried ‘Jack­daws love my big sphinx of quartz’ as a prizewin­ning en­try for many years, and that’s a beauty too – 31 letters in all.

Dmitri Borgmann, an Amer­i­can word­smith known for draw­ing up ex­haus­tive lists of in­ter­est­ing words and phrases in a pre-com­puter era, coined the present win­ner “Cwm fjord bank glyphs vext quiz”. That sen­tence is ex­actly 26 letters long but is near in­com­pre­hen­si­ble—the ‘cwm’ at the be­gin­ning is Welsh for ‘steep­sided val­ley’, and helped pop­u­larise the use of ‘w’ as a vowel or a cheat­ing de­vice by other lo­gol­o­gists; in one stroke you could use up the ‘w’ and not have to re­peat a vowel.

Leg­endary New York Times crossword puzzle edi­tor Will Shortz once ran a pan­gram com­pe­ti­tion with a dif­fer­ence. His rule: Each sen­tence must use all 26 letters of the al­pha­bet at least once, and also con­tain the name of a fa­mous per­son. It’s easy to see why Mr Shortz listed these as his favourite en­tries:

Beloved Grou­cho joked with a mix of zany quips. (38)

John Quincy Adams grew vexed by talk of puz­zles. (39)

My ex­pen­sive quartz watch once be­longed to JFK. (39)

Watch Jeop­ardy, Alex Tre­bek’s fun TV quiz game. (37)

Whacky pan­gram quiz flum­moxed Steve Jobs. (35)

And this el­e­gant self-ref­er­en­tial one: Quickly, Shortz dreams up a few vex­ing jum­bles. (38)

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