Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Richard Lederer

 

Time spent solving a crossword or arranging Sudoku numbers could spell better health for aging brains, researchers say. In a study of more than 19,000 British adults age 50 and over who were tracked for 25 years, the habit of solving word or number puzzles seemed to help keep minds active and nimble over time. In fact, subjects who worked word puzzles performed equivalent of 10 years younger and Sudoku eight years younger than people who didn’t.

“We’ve found that the more regularly people engage with puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku, the sharper their performance is across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning,” claims research leader Dr. Anne Corbett, of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Does that translate to protection against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia? The study “can’t say” at this point, “but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

The study is now expanding into other countries, including the United States. 

DEAR RICHARD LEDERER: What is the source and meaning of at sixes and sevens? It’s in Gilbert and Sullivan. -Karen Owens, San Diego

William Shakespeare uses a similar phrase in Richard II: “But time will not permit: All is uneven, /And every thing is left at six and seven.” As you point out, Gilbert and Sullivan created a comic opera titled At Sixes and Sevens.

Sixes and sevens derives from an old dicing game that had more than the six sides of modern dice. To attempt to roll a six and seven was considered way too risky, so at sixes and sevens came to mean “an addled response to a situation.”

A number of other expressions issue from dicing. When you’re on a roll, that doesn’t mean you’re a hot dog. Rather, the dice are rolling benevolently for your bank account. To make no bones about something signifies “to be simple and straightforward.” A number of etymologists trace this cliché to games of dicing because dice were originally made from bones. Some gamblers go through elaborate rituals before casting their dice onto the green baize table. They blow on the cubes, shake them vigorously and bark lucky incantations before each throw. Other gamers will make no bones by simply shaking the cubes once and then tossing them down.

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On the front page of a recent New York Times, the paper asked if Brexit (a meld pun on the British exit from the European Union) “is the mother of all mulligans.”

A mulligan is a free shot to compensate for a mishit ball, sometimes permitted in a casual game of golf. No one can say for sure how this word came into golf in 1949, but here’s my best guess: In family-type saloons there was always a bottle called Mulligan on the bar. The basic ingredients of this sauce were hot pepper seeds and water. If you were insane enough to swish a few drops of this concoction into your beer, it ate out your liver, stomach, bladder and finally your heart. In the psychological sense, this is precisely what happens on the course when you accumulate too many mulligans.

An alternate theory asserts that the word eponymously derives from the name of Canadian golfer David Mulligan. Each week, Mulligan provided transportation to the St. Lambert Country Club near Montreal for his regular foursome. One day in the late 1920s, he mishit his drive off the first tee with hands still numb from driving over rough roads and a particularly bumpy bridge at the course entrance. In appreciation for Mulligan’s driving of his automobile (not his ball), his friends gave him a second shot.

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I try never to be behind the eight ball when I write this column. Whence the origin of that expression?

In one version of the game of Kelly pool the balls must be pocketed in numerical order except for the eight, which must be saved for last. If another ball touches the eight, the player is penalized. Hence, any pool player whose cue ball or target ball is behind the eight ball is in the perilous position of having to sink another ball without colliding with or even nicking the eight. Behind the eight ball has been generalized to mean “any difficult, troublesome situation.”