Grammar When Jumble Fumbles |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

When Jumble Fumbles

I may be a word nerd, but I don’t go in for word games. I’ve never been a Scrabble guy and crossword puzzles leave me cold.

But I have a weakness for Jumble, a game that since the 1950s has been a daily feature in newspapers from coast to coast. When I started playing it, I became so fixated that if I couldn’t solve the puzzle, my day was ruined. I had to give it up for a few years.

“That scrambled word game” is how Jumble concisely defines itself. The brief directions tell us to unscramble four “ordinary words” of either five or six letters. It’s the first step in deciphering that day’s brainteaser. When you identify a word, you write it into an oblong area divided into five or six spaces for letters. Up to four of these spaces have been circled; the circled letters figure in the solution. A recent scrambled word was SCEXIE, with the second and fifth letter spaces circled. So figuring out the word is excise gives you an x and an s.

Next you take all the circled letters and unscramble them to solve the puzzle, with the “help” of a jokey clue and cartoon. The answer, which Jumble prints in its space the following day, is usually a corny play on words, but is sometimes fiendishly clever. A recent clue was “What mom got from one hug.” The circled letters were e, g, h, n, o and u, which spell not only one hug, but also the puzzle’s solution: enough.

Things I’ve learned playing Jumble: the last name of acerbic comedian Bill Maher is an anagram for harem. Would Richard Starkey have changed his name if the Beatles’ drummer had known “Ringo” also spells groin? Did Marlon Brando’s parents realize that their son’s first name is an anagram for normal?

The more you play, the more you realize the jumbled words are bound by very strict unspecified rules. You’ll find no cities, states, or countries, no brands like Sears or Pepsi, no names like Susan or Dylan.

Prefixes like re are on a short leash: “GRABE” could not be “rebag.” Although it’s arguably a word, it’s not an “ordinary” word. You won’t find it in the dictionary. The right answer is barge.

Adding an s to a noun (e.g., “hands”) or to a verb (e.g., “hopes”) is cheating — but handed or hoping is OK.

I’ll never forget a few years ago when, after hours of futility, I gave up on LEMISS. The next day, I was appalled to find that LEMISS was supposed to be “smiles.” What the …? This was a serious lapse for Jumble, and I was incensed that the writers never issued an apology.

Words like steal and there can never qualify — they could just as easily be stale and three. To me, this is Jumble’s Cardinal Rule: The puzzle can’t work unless each scramble spells out one word and only one word. The writers of Jumble have an obligation never to break this commandment.

But, alas, they did. Nov. 2, 2010, is a date that will live in Jumble infamy. The jumbled word in question was HCEPA, with the second and fifth spaces circled. I immediately hit on cheap. The next day, I was staggered when I checked the answer: peach.

They broke the Cardinal Rule!!

This is an outrage. Somewhere in Jumbleville, heads must roll.

Tom Stern

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5 responses to “When Jumble Fumbles”

  1. Pat Mogford says:

    I also fell in love with Jumble many years ago when visiting my parents. Often I would solve the riddle before un-jumbling the words. My stepfather would feign outrage and claim that was against the law!
    I no longer get a newspaper, but found the Jumble app for my electronic devices. It’s not quite the same, but I am back to solving the riddle first and then un-jumbling the words.
    I play one round every day and love it.

  2. Lawrence Elliott says:

    Thank you for calling the game back to mind. It has been a very long time since I’ve played it. I will say that I got cheap very quickly, but never picked the peach. LEMISS = SMILES, got it in an instant!

    Speaking of anagrams, do you realize that stifle is the only word that is an anagram of itself?

    • You’re probably right that stifle may be the only anagram of itself, at least as far as common usage is concerned. Depending on what dictionary you consult, you may find the words filet and flite, each of which could be made plural. Thank you for writing.

  3. Robert J Tinsky says:

    OK, so no one is perfect. I too love Jumble and play it every day. So what if once in a while a jumble can be more than one word? It does ruin the fun for that day but it is just a game and my day is not totally ruined. There is always tomorrow. Enjoyed your article and satire!

  4. Bill P. says:

    I’m a Jumble fanatic also, and often I can solve the answer to the puzzle without unscrambling all of the ordinary words. The next day, I check to see what ordinary word(s) I missed. It’s sometimes frustrating, but I’m addicted to it.

    I also look forward to the weekly quizzes in the GrammarBook newsletter.

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