Good Balderdash Words

Balderdash is one of my favorite games. It works as follows: one player reads aloud an obscure word of English that nobody knows. All the other players make up a definition for this word and write it down on a scrap of paper. Meanwhile, the word reader writes down the true definition of the word. She then collects all the proposed definitions, slips in the real one, and reads them all aloud. Everyone votes on which definition they think is the real one. Players earn points if they guess the correct definition of the word or if other players vote for their invented definitions. Balderdash is sold as a board game, with cards listing rare English words, but it can be played with nothing more than a dictionary (the larger the better).

Balderdash is one of the funniest games I’ve ever played. There’s a fine line between a made-up definition that is amusing but still plausible and one that is completely outrageous. And sometimes the real definition is almost unbelievable. The hardest part of the game is probably reading all the proposed definitions aloud with a straight face when you know which one is real.

It’s very satisfying listening to other players take your utterly fictitious definition seriously, and it’s amazing to realize how many words of English (someone’s English, somewhere, sometime) you have never encountered before. In my experience, good Balderdash words tend to be of Germanic origin, as words with Greek or Latin roots can often be at least partially deciphered (consider haffle vs. xanthic) (okay, maybe most people don’t know that xantho– is a prefix from Greek meaning “yellow,” but I honestly think more 21st century speakers of American English know that than have ever heard the word haffle).

Anyway, the point of all this is that I learned two new words this past week that immediately struck me as being excellent Balderdash words.

Wapentake (n.) : a subdivision of certain shires or counties, esp in the Midlands and North of England, corresponding to the hundred in other shires

I stumbled upon this word by serendipity. I finished reading the YA fantasy novel Witchlanders (which is so, so good!) and went to learn more about the author, Lena Coakley. She has a fondness for the Brontës, so I looked them up on Wikipedia to remind myself of all the siblings in that family. There, I learned that the Brontës had lived in something called the West Riding of Yorkshire, which sounded so romantic I had to go look that up, whereupon I discovered the subsection “Ancient Divisions: Wapentakes.” It almost doesn’t look like a real English word, right?

The etymology of wapentake is pretty fascinating too. It originally comes from Old Norse and literally means “weapon take”. It might have referred to a sort of census by weaponry and/or a practice of voting by brandishing weapons. It’s interesting to think of dividing land into units according to a set number of available swords (that is, sword-wielding individuals). One could imagine sparsely populated areas having larger wapentakes and densely populated areas having smaller ones. I’m not sure that’s how it worked at all; I’m making this up. But it would be a good worldbuilding element, wouldn’t it?  

Spline (n.): a long, flexible strip of wood or the like, used in drawing curves

This word came up in Baayen’s Analyzing linguistic data: A practical introduction to statistics, a textbook I’m working through this summer (joy!). Specifically, it came up in the context of restricted cubic splines, which are functions that can be used to capture nonlinear relationships in a regression model while avoiding overfitting and its associated problems. Right. Basically, they’re functions for modeling curves, which is why they’re named after a physical tool used to draw curves.

Spline is an ideal Balderdash word because it looks perfectly English (it complies with English phonotactics, or rules about syllable structure and what sounds can appear next to each other) but I had never heard it before reading it in my statistics textbook. It looks like it could mean anything: a type of plant graft, a kind of fishing lure, a bird… Spline’s origin is given as East Anglian dialect, so, Germanic again.

Here, then, are two great Balderdash words! Only, now you know what they mean, which defeats the purpose of the game.

2 thoughts on “Good Balderdash Words

    • Yes! I first learned to play on vacation with family friends, and I haven’t played it in ages either. You kind of need a decent number of people to make it fun. Of course you would know all the word games!

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