Saturday, August 8, 2009

Word Golf

In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the narrator/commentator Charles Kinbote talks about playing "word golf" with John Shade (ad 819):
My illustrious friend showed a childish predilection for all sorts of word games and especially for so-called word golf....Some of my records are: hate-love in three, lass-male in four, and live-dead in five (with "lend" in the middle).
The index shows us what he's up to (s.v. "Word golf"): Lass, Mass, Mars, Mare, Male. So you change the letters one by one to hit the target, and each change must spell a word. How did the other games go?

Hate-love in 3 isn't much of an accomplishment: Hate, Have, Lave, Love; Hate, Have, Hove, Love; Hate, Late, Lave, Love. It's noteworthy that all three solutions involve a literary or otherwise unusual word (lave or hove).

(The Oxford English Dictionary will give you "hote" and "lote" (both archaic/obsolete), which make the target impossible not to hit because you can reach it through any sequence of letter changes.)

Let's try Live-Dead in 5. We need Live, ----, ----, Lend, ----, Dead. Move 4 must be Lead. Three possibilities for moves 1 and 2 (marking obsolete words with an asterisk): Line, *Lind; Line, *Lene; *Leve, *Lene. That last one, "Leve, Lene," is an absurdly obscure sequence even for Kinbote. So move 1 was Line.

Did Kinbote use Lind or Lene for move 2? "Lind" is the linden tree, but "often used for a tree of any kind" in Middle English poetry (says OED); in phonetics, "lene" denotes a certain type of consonant. Shade and Kinbote can be expected to appreciate early English poetry and therefore might know "lind"; Shade uses "surd," another phonetic term, in line 554 of his poem, so perhaps he and Kinbote would have heard the obsolete "lene." If I had to choose, I suppose it's a bit more likely Kinbote would show off a knowledge of Middle English, giving us:
Live, Line, Lind, Lend, Lead, Dead

All three word golfs are thematically significant: e.g., Lass-Male wittily alludes to the narrator's homosexuality. For readers who work them out, the solutions to Hate-Love and Live-Dead are another bit of characterization: the pompous, pedantic Kinbote is yet again showing off his expertise, whether literary (lind, lave, hove) or linguistic (lene).

Google bonus: Plug each of my Live-Dead solutions into a search engine, and you'll see that other people have gotten them. But I'm the only one who lists both!

(Teen vampires are coming in the next post!)


  1. i am so fascinated with this word golf game of which you speak...i don't think my vocabulary is quite good enough to play as well as you play, but i think this will be a good way to occupy my mind during, say, long car trips...or while i'm scrubbing bathrooms as a merry maid.

  2. If you happen to read this, Morgan (or anyone else), a fun (but off-color) word golf to try is "suck" to "blow." How many moves does it take you?

  3. I have it in seven. Do you have a shorter one?

  4. There are several ways to do it in six. "Book" is a useful intermediate move.

    Four is not possible. Five seems to require that you use obsolete words, but there might be a solution I haven't found.