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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Achalasia


Back in February, a perfect 9 × 9 word square—apparently the largest possible in the English language—cropped up on the HH feed.

This fact turned out to be one of the week’s most popular, but raised a few questions about the meanings of the words involved, what precisely a “perfect” word square entails, and whether this is, genuinely, the largest one possible.

It’s safe to say that the likes of anabolite, crenidens and linolenin aren’t among the most everyday of words. So here’s what we’re looking at:

  • achalasia (n.) a medical condition affecting the muscles of the oesophagus

  • crenidens (n.) the karanteen, a species of sea bream found in the Indian Ocean

  • hexandric (adj.) a botanical term describing a plant having six equal stamens

  • anabolite (n.) any complex molecule produced by anabolism from simpler ones

  • linolenin (n.) glycerol tri-linolenate, a glycerol ester of linolenic acid

  • addlehead (n.) an addle-headed person; a contemptible fool

  • serinette (n.) a miniature barrel organ used to teach caged birds to sing

  • initiator (n.) one who initiates; a substance that starts a chain reaction

  • ascenders (n. pl.) the parts of lowercase letters that ascend above a line of text

The fact that all of these words are unhyphenated, uncapitalized, single-word dictionary entries—each one used in the grid just once—is what makes this the best example of a “perfect” word square we have. To produce anything equalling or surpassing it typically requires bending those rules, and often by quite some distance.

So another 9 × 9 square could be built from the words nassicola, antidoron, stageland, signallee, ideations, collingei, oralogist, lonenesse and andesites—but that involves one obsolete spelling (lonenesse) and two Latin taxonomic names (Gynaecotyla nassicola, a species of flukeworm, and Xyletobius collingei, a type of beetle). If bending the rules like this is allowed, then there are hundreds of possible 9 × 9 word squares (as explained in this 2003 article [PDF] from Word Ways magazine). But so long as we’re seeking absolute perfection—and who wouldn’t want to do that?—then the achalasia example above is our best bet.

The quest for perfection continues apace however—as the does the quest for a perfect 10 × 10 square.

So far no perfect 10-word example has been produced, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been a few close shaves:

O R A N G U T A N G

R A N G A R A N G A

A N D O L A N D O L

N G O T A N G O T A

G A L A N G A L A N

U R A N G U T A N G

T A N G A T A N G A

A N D O L A N D O L

N G O T A N G O T A

G A L A N G A L A N

This, from author and linguist Dmitri Borgmann’s Language On Vacation (1965), is about as close to a perfect 10 × 10 square anyone has yet managed. But even then it contains two place names; three repeated words; two obsolete spellings of orangutan; and a few words you would be hard pushed to find in any standard English dictionary:

  • rangaranga (n.) a type of parsley fern that grows on walls in Micronesia

  • andol-andol (n.) in Chinese medicine, a blistering agent made from dried beetles

  • Ngotangota (prop. n.) a town in east Africa, on the west coast of Lake Malawi

It seems the quest for 10 × 10 perfection continues...

#wordplay

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