The Boston Globe reported that the rules for the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee are changing. Starting this year, contestants will not only have to spell words, they’ll also have to take a multiple choice vocabulary test. As reported, the sample provided by the Spelling Bee was:
“Something described as refulgent is: a) tending to move toward one point, b) demanding immediate action, c) rising from an inferior state, d) giving out a bright light.”
Much to my surprise, I knew the answer! Not because I’m well-read and had a good liberal arts education, no. I owe my fleeting sense of erudition to Fictionary, a game for everyone who cringes when someone suggests charades.
The rules are simple. You take turns flipping through a dictionary to choose a word that you are fairly certain none of the other players will know. (If you are playing with my friend Josiah, this part of the game can take a while because he knows a lot of words.) When you find one that will challenge the vocabulary of the other players, you copy down the real definition while everyone else writes down a mock one. Then you read all the definitions out loud and people vote for the one they think is right. When someone votes for a fake definition, the author gets a point.
In order to make a definition more convincing, players will try to mimic the style of the dictionary resulting in definitions that start, “Of, or pertaining to…” and may include phrases like “commonly found in” or “as of.” I have a hard time keeping a straight face when it’s my turn to read the definitions, sometimes I get downright hysterical.
During the game where I learned the meaning of refulgent, I was also introduced to the word jerboa, a small rodent that jumps. Strangely, that word is missing from the 1994 Merriam-Webster that I keep on my desk, so to verify that I remembered correctly I had to consult dictionary.com, which says that a jerboa is “any of various mouse-like rodents of North Africa and Asia, as of the genera Jaculus and Dipus, with long hind legs used for jumping.” That would make a great Fictionary definition if it weren’t true.
I don’t know why anyone would choose to play charades if there’s a dictionary handy. I’ve played with kids as young as ten and for some reason they make surprisingly good competitors. And they’re as likely to vote for the real definition as anyone. Try it yourself. What did you choose as the correct definition for refulgent? If you don’t know, grab a dictionary and find out. I’m not telling you the answer. I want to feel like a winner for just a little while longer.