The Bell Curve: Some Christmas Day word play

There's a time and space on Christmas when all the gifts have been unwrapped and duly fussed over, when it is too early for dinner, and an entire day faces you. That's when you look for a letdown activity.

Movies serve that purpose quite well. There you can sleep or drift or daydream without feeling guilt at a need for entertainment after the morning's high.

But in my house this Christmas, the entertainment was a game, one of the kind where the participants sit around a table and argue about who has the most smarts — as if this were a life and death issue.

I was one of five contestants, the only one, I note with humility, with an adult perspective. This gave me a chance to step outside the game and study the behavior on display. And it illustrated noisily how inflexible competition can take over what essentially is a ninth-grade game with ambitions.

The name of the game is Literati, and the goal is to expose the other contestants' limited grasp of the English language. Each player draws a card from an humongous pack in which a word appears on one side and a definition of the word and its use in a sentence on the other. The words are not exotic or tricks. They are solid English words with exact definitions that have been replaced by clichéd words and phrases with elastic uses and definitions. The players are given one minute to write the exposed words into a sentence. The cards have various values that make up the players' scores. And that amount is doubled if all of the exposed cards are written into one coherent sentence.

All of the sentences are subject to challenge, and therein lies the source of the noisy debates that took places in my group of five, in the shadow of our Christmas tree. I've agreed to protect the innocent by not using real names. So we'll call the contestants Margaret and Nancy and — beside me — Charley and Andy. Charley was the most strident and Nancy the most active in taking him on. None of us were ready to concede challenges.

Among the words we had to put into sentences were "collusion," "malign," "quagmire," "mettle," "malingerer," "befuddled," "flout" and "assuage." You get the idea. Putting more than one of the game words into the same sentences produced such monstrosities as "His mettle allowed him to flout her befuddled state."

But it also created a close relationship for a few hours with words that now only appear between book covers. Somehow we have regressed from the recognition that words are tools to understanding the rules and risks and satisfactions of the world we live in. It's warming to see them turn up as a Christmas gift.

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50 years ago…

I've enjoyed writing over the years about the antics of the undergraduate students at Caltech who live in a cosmos of their own, where they pry up the lid periodically to see what devilment is hidden there for our enlightenment. So I was delighted when the Los Angeles Times revisited the 50th anniversary last week of what has to stand as the most outrageous prank in history. And I was there to see it happen.

It all took place during the half of the Rose Bowl football game between Washington and Minnesota on New Year's Day in 1961. That's when the Washington card section was poised to take the spotlight for its long-planned exhibition.

As I recall, I was waiting in a line for the men's room and watching the field in the desultory fashion of football aficionados whose only interest is the game. I was dimly conscious that the animal portrayed by the cards was not the Washington Husky it was programmed to be. Instead, it looked surprisingly like the beaver that is Caltech's mascot.

Having captured the attention of 100,000 spectators in the Rose Bowl, the pranksters who called themselves the Fiendish 14 were ready for the coup de gras. Instead of spelling "Washington" the cards very clearly read "CALTECH." And the crowd, not knowing for sure why, cheered the making of history.

It was some weeks afterward before the details of how it was accomplished surfaced, at least partly because they included several examples of breaking and entering of the dormitory rooms at Cal State Long Beach, where the cards were stored, and exchanging them for the Caltech cards that would come up at the game.

Some laws were severely stretched and a ton of Washington card holders — actually some 2,400 of them — were deeply disappointed, but over the years, the Fiendish 14 have been canonized as the all-time winners of the gold medal for creative pranksterism. And watching it happen made it easy for me to feel a special kind of comfort that the students who perpetrated it were on our side.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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