EVENT: Writer Sports 3: Playing with forgotten words (Saturday, 24 September; Fugard Theatre)
Ben Williams chairs five talented writers as they strive to provide the most accurate definitions for forgotten words. No smart phones or laptops allowed. Featuring Imraan Coovadia, Rustum Kozain, Madeline Miller, Helen Moffett and Henrietta Rose-Innes.
What, precisely, is a bed-swerver? A gorget? Galligaskins? No idea? Before you flagellate yourself, consider this: neither do the pros. This session of Writer Sports makes Balderdash look like a dictionary, which, in fact, is the prize five top local and international writers are fighting for. The aim of the game is to guess the meaning of entirely outdated words – with no assistance from dictionaries, laptops or smartphones. A quirky exam indeed.
Books LIVE editor Ben Williams has the pleasure of switching on the heat: Imraan Coovadia, Madeline Miller, Rustum Kozain, Helen Moffat and Henrietta Rose-Innes must take a virtual shot in the dark to beat each other at the guessing game.
If none can get anywhere close, Ben gives them a clutch of clues, but even then the answer escapes most of them. A correct hit scores 10 points, and the author who takes home gold also takes home a special edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary as part of the centenary celebration of its first edition. Once the word is guessed, Williams reads out its formal definition and gives some background, such as how the word developed or where it originated.
Faced with words like “figgy-dowdy”, “farthingale” and “bed swerver”, it is hilarious to see the panel stumped for answers. “Gorget”, Helen proposes, is “an anti-vampire device”, Imraan offers “older brother of courgette”, while Rustum says it’s “a small person who eats a lot.” Rustum is of the opinion that “crinkum-crankum” is a car that needs to be crank-started, but then revises this, saying it means “nonsense”, as in: “I can’t take this crinkum-crankum anymore!”
The writers’ personalities each bring something different to the interaction and reveal characteristics that members of the audience grow to understand and even expect from them. If Madeline thinks she knows the answer, she guesses it as soon as Ben puts it to the panel, while Rustum, in comparison, keeps asking for the spelling of the word even after the correct definition has been provided. The audience is also allowed to participate. If the authors can’t do it, Ben asks whether anyone else wants to have a go. None of the writers have a clue what “nut-hook” means, for example: someone from the audience reckons it’s “an Inuit policeman”, while someone else feels that “galligaskins” is an outdated word for stockings. To everyone’s surprise, Ben says this is on the right track. Madeline then guesses that it was a garter belt of old. Rustum wants to know what, exactly, is the difference between stockings and garter belts? Henrietta comes to the correct conclusion that galligaskins were a device used by ladies to join their stockings to their corsets. Next up: “thimblerig.” It goes to the audience because the authors don’t come anywhere close to the answer. But one person does, in fact, know what it means: a shell game that uses three cups to move a small round object between them, before asking a spectator to guess which cup the object is under.
After much hilarity, the sports draw to a close, and Henrietta and Madeline emerge triumphant as joint winners. But only one person can take home a dictionary, and that honour is bestowed on Henrietta.
Everyone, however, leaves with an improved vocabulary.