We began to play Balderdash the spring that I turned sixteen. I had seen it in a mail order catalogue — one of the many that my mother would let pile up in a copper bin near the fireplace that was otherwise intended for chopped wood, and which it was the entire household’s habit to browse through while stationed at the nearby snack bar — to study, idly, the absolutely unnecessary collections of, say, safari wear, or astronaut pens, or five-piece lock-picking sets. I requested the game for my birthday. It seemed to be just what I wanted.
In the game of Balderdash (which is just Mattel’s rendering of the old parlor game called “Dictionary”) there is a single word printed on the front of each card. Something you will have never seen. Perhaps schenkfelder, or allocochick, or sialogogue. Words so obscure that no one at the table will have encountered them – not even my father, who, having done the Times crossword puzzle every day of the week, long before I entered the world, seemed to me a repository of lexical bits and bobs. But Balderdash words are the white elephants, the curios and forgotten imports that lurk in the vast storehouse of the English language. At the beginning of each round, you are presented with one of these strange specimens. Maybe it will be acrocephalic, or scopula, or bezoar. Then you, along with everyone else at the table, must contrive a definition. When all the definitions — the ersatz alongside the single correct one – are read aloud, as a sort of rogue’s gallery of possibilities, the idea is to ID the real definition. You get a point for that. But all the glory is in tricking the other players, in making them believe that your definition is the real one.
It was always the four of us: my father, my older brother, his childhood friend Luke*, and me. We assembled in the evenings around a table, sometimes in the living room, sometimes in the basement. That first summer, my brother was nineteen going on twenty and was home from his first year at a suitably bohemian liberal arts college, in the Pacific Northwest. Luke was the same age and had been working construction jobs in Round Lake all year. We would play, from then on, whenever my brother was home to visit; the evening would somehow assemble itself around the table, where we sat, pencils in hand, little piles of blank paper at our elbows. My mother would interrupt now and then to serve coffee and cookies. She was sometimes, half-jokingly, encouraged to pull up a chair and play, but she never did. She said she’d embarrass herself, that she wasn’t smart enough.
But I was beginning to feel a proprietary sense toward words. Later that year, I would begin collecting rare ones, plucking out whatever curios I came across on the page and filing them away in a spiral notebook I kept in the drawer of my nightstand: word, pronunciation, definition, just as it appeared in our old Webster’s on the shelf next to the back door. If I sighted one of these words again, it was with the same satisfaction that a birder recognizes a rare avis. I saw how words could signal, how threading a sentence with beauties like superfluous (knowing it well enough to place the stress, nonchalantly, on the second syllable), penultimate, and anomalous was a beacon for anyone who knew the code. The words I used, the syntax of my sentences, could let them know that, despite how I might duck my head, or how my voice might fade out, I was different from the people who surrounded me in our small Wisconsin town. And I knew, I knew, that I could discern others like me, by the light of such words.
The trick of writing a convincing Balderdash definition, I found, was to tap into what the word might, unconsciously, recall to anyone with even the slightest etymological intuition. But you shouldn’t reach for the most obvious associations the word might summon: to suggest something like the bone adjacent to the triangular bones forming part of the shoulder for scopula was too obvious; everyone would have thought of it and see through your lazy contrivance. What was best was to reach for the glimmer of a suggestion, so far from the tip of the tongue that it seemed impossible for anyone to recognize it unbidden, and yet, there it was; there you would set it down. Scopula, you could write, with borrowed authority, is a unit of Old English verse. And the players would rub their chins and nod, slowly. Never mind that the real definition had something to do with spiders.
Within our small party of four, there was, however, some variety of methodology. My father, for his part, applied himself to the composition of phony definitions with the same brisk efficiency with which he approached any chore, be it brushing stray crumbs from the kitchen counters or re-ordering each section of the newspaper, snapping all of its pages into alignment when he’d finished with it. One sensed he formed little attachment to any of the words themselves, was never compelled to peer into them and divine any of their magic. Rather, he seemed to reach for the most plausible of any number of readymade definitions he kept on hand, in the same way an army blanket and flashlight were always in the trunk of his car. His definitions were equally practical — solid nouns drawn from seafaring and military history. Tools for adjusting the standing rigging on sailing vessels or cleaning the barrel of a musket.
The two boys and I took more care with our definitions. You could sense our tongues at the corners of our mouths as our pencils paused over the small squares of paper before us. My brother, steeping in a first-year ethnomusicology syllabus and the mesmeric waves and gyres of Aboriginal dot painting, crafted definitions that were perhaps, at times, a bit too full of tribal ritual. By that token, you might have thought that Luke’s creations would be inflected with his years spent building things with wood and concrete – and perhaps they sometimes were. But he also dropped acid and smoked and convened troops of friends to jam at a cabin he had somewhere deep in the woods, where he played the harmonica soulfully — and, perhaps because of this, he could home in on shadows of syllables that, say, recalled the remnants of his high school French (which was also our high school French) or the fabulous creatures that populated the myths of the ancient Greeks — and reel us in. I remember falling for his definitions more than a few times, over the years.
I had no stockpile of military history or ethnomusicology to draw from, no field of expertise in any way, and yet this lack of knowledge about the world was not a deficit, as it was in tedious games like Trivial Pursuit. Instead of being exposed, in the game of Balderdash this lack could be camouflaged by language. Whether I knew what a sialogogue or a miryachit was was not an issue; the sentences I spun – their tenor and cadence – were. I took the longest of anyone at the table to compose my definitions, a tendency that often drew pointed remarks. My father would observe to the rest of the table that I’d memorized all of the cards before anyone else had arrived and was just putting on an act. Even Luke, once, was compelled to make a plea for the speedier conclusion of my composition. “Marvin K. Mooney,” he intoned, alluding to a Dr. Seuss book from the most distant shores of childhood. “Will you please go now?” His North Woods accent was so strong that it sometimes seemed like a put-on.
But ribbing was part of the culture of the game as we played it. (Having never observed it among any of my friends, I assumed it was unique to the party we’d formed.) My father claimed to be able to smell my brother’s exotic definitions a mile away, while the two boys would snort at any offering that seemed too strongly marked by an armchair familiarity with seafaring. And the group of players would forever attribute to me a genre of definition that came to be known as the “bird from the southern coast” ploy: the offense of defining a word in such vague geographical terms that it might be found anywhere at all. The amiable insult was lobbed, most frequently by my brother, whenever any one of us strayed too far into nebulous territory.
Once, when my brother was away, I invited a group of girls I knew over for a game of Balderdash: Nicole, Christy, Kelly. I set up the round table in the basement, parceling out the pencils and slips of blank paper, explained the rules of play. It wasn’t the same, though. The insular, shared enterprise of the game, everything about it that was marvelous when I played with my brother and father and Luke, seemed to have leaked out, and now it was merely silly. The girls wrote definitions that were not at all like the ones my brother, my father, Luke, and I wrote – they were somehow unserious about it, unconscious of etymology, unattuned to the familiar dictionary style. I tried, gamely, to guffaw at their definitions, to poke a little fun at them, as the regular table would if such offerings had surfaced. But there was never any rejoinder, never any good-natured riposte. I felt as if I was playing alone.
We regulars, though, were, on the whole, well matched. One of us might have a winning streak that lasted a handful of games, but the rest of us were usually clustered right behind. I won, in fact, more often than my brother. Although I was the youngest, and the sole representative of my sex, I was not the worst. In fact, no one was the worst. I was, at least as far as the game was concerned, something closer to an equal. That was how it felt to me during all the years that we played: as if we were a secret society whose rites I knew as well as anyone else in it. Otherwise, at all other times, I was the uninvited audience for my brother and Luke’s witticisms; I might interject an observation or a suitably sardonic remark, but I was never exactly part of whatever it was that they were doing. If a remark was ever aimed in my direction, it was unexpected, like a scrap tossed at a dog.
When we assembled for Balderdash, though, I had every right to be there, every right to make things up, to have these things read and considered. And, as the definitions were being read aloud, I was part of the ritualized face-making. “Interesting,” my father might say, adjusting his glasses. “Huh,” Luke would note, like a farmer with his thumbs in his overall straps who has just been informed that his neighbor is planting his corn in January instead of June. My brother would snort, loudly. I would raise a skeptical eyebrow. The game was to appear, at first, persuaded by none of the offerings.
Sometimes, during the game, I would interject, offer some small observation about a particularly unlikely definition. Otherwise, I don’t think that I spoke much. I was, in many ways, terrifically shy around my brother and his friends, terrified that I might make a misstep and confirm beyond a doubt that, as they suspected, I didn’t belong. If I did say something, I wanted it to be perfectly formed, its tone and its timing correctly served up to them, so that they would recognize it as something as clever as they might say. On those evenings around the table, though, I laughed, almost to the point of tears, at nearly everything my brother and Luke said. A nervous excitement drove me to spasms of laughter and hiccups, and even to the kind of laughter that is beyond sound, when you rock forward with your mouth open as if you are in a silent movie, as if you have reached a plane of mirth beyond anyone’s hearing.
It was only in the composition of my definitions, in the space of the slip of paper, that I actually spoke in whole sentences. It was a wonder of the game that when your definition was chosen – when, for instance, Luke or my brother chose one of my definitions – it was chosen not as yours but because it sounded real. Of course they would never pick anything of mine, anywhere, on purpose – but I could trick them into it. Those were the best moments of the game, when one of them, or both of them, would, frowning thoughtfully, say that they’d have to go with the definition that (as I watched them, careful to let my face reveal nothing) I knew was mine.
I often hoped that whatever camaraderie was established during the game would carry over, at least in its aftermath. That at some point I might find myself invited along to wherever it was that the two boys always slipped off after the game. But that never happened. Sometimes, in the middle of the game, Luke’s eye would catch mine, and we’d silently acknowledge, both of us at once, whatever absurd thing my brother or my father had just uttered. A thrill would shoot through me, like a small electric shock, and I wondered if, one of those nights, Luke might just say to my brother that I should come along with the two of them. But that never happened either.
Once, when my brother was also at home, Luke called and asked for me. That same thrill shot through me as my mother called me to the phone. But Luke was calling only to ask for the assignment he’d missed in our American lit class that day — that year, my senior year of high school, I was taking some courses at the community college. I told him right away what the assignment was, and that was that. I hung up, the thrill in my chest beginning to sink beneath the anticlimax of the conversation. That had been that. My brother, however, was baffled that Luke had called without asking to speak to him. And at this, I felt a small spark of significance.
Luke and I spoke hardly at all to each other in class — a nod was about all we exchanged. But then, I figured, Luke was silent throughout the class period, as if he were digesting what was taking place and reserving his judgment for later, in a less public arena. Once that spring, during a game of Balderdash, my brother began to imitate the professor — based, evidently, on impressions that Luke had provided for him. The two of them sat and laughed for a while, about her and about the class that Luke and I were taking.
There was a day that spring, though, when our class traveled up to the Lac Longues Nez Reservation, about an hour north, to see a one-man performance of Coyote tales, about that trickster of Native American stories. At that time of year, the air was still cold, but the day was bright and the bus took a route that wound past deep forest and lakeside. I thought it would be nice to return some day, maybe even with someone else. The performance was very good; the young man who told the tales seemed to spin not just Coyote, but that the entire world of starry skies and fire beings and great spirits, out of himself. It made me unexpectedly happy to listen to him.
Back on the bus, on the way home, Luke appeared in the seat in front of me. My heart leapt up, very quietly. We nodded at one another. And, after a silence, I asked him what he’d thought of the performance. But he might as well not have answered. He was polite, almost as if he'd failed to recognize me. He wasn’t the person who sat across from me at the Balderdash table, squinting as the ridiculous definitions were read, releasing a deep Midwestern ohhh of disbelief.
We didn’t speak again for the rest of the bus ride. I looked out the window instead, and watched the forest and lakeside pass by.
The four of us played Balderdash – my brother, Luke, my father, and I – for a long time. For years. My brother dropped out of his bohemian liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. Luke earned his associate’s degree at the community college. I graduated from high school. My brother moved back to the Midwest and started classes at the U of M. Luke started classes at Madison. I started college at a school I’d thought sounded something like the one my brother had gone to. My brother stopped going to his classes at the U of M. Luke graduated with a B.A. in philosophy and went back to doing construction. My brother started working at a curry joint in a food court, from which he reported on things like the inaccuracy of our too-general term “curry-colored.” He started working at a Sam Goody, which, whenever we spoke, he made sound like an ethnomusicology field site. Luke got married, to the girl he’d been dating since high school. My brother started going to his classes again. I graduated from college and followed a boyfriend to Massachusetts. Luke started law school at the U of M. My brother at last graduated from college. Luke was hired as an associate at my father’s law firm. My brother moved to Paris to teach English as a second language. I moved to New York and started an MFA program, in fiction.
The game lasted a very long time. We played whenever all three of us were home at once — Thanksgivings, Christmases, summers — and it was always the same: “the bird of the southern coast” insults, the Masterpiece Theatre readings of the definitions, the calculated performance of skepticism, my mother hovering nearby with coffee and a plate of cookies. I can’t remember which happened first: the Christmas vacation when my brother yanked me so hard that I fell halfway down a flight of stairs, or the law firm’s decision to let Luke go. Eventually, though, we stopped playing.
I think of those slips of paper sometimes, all of which were long ago swept into the trash bin. I don’t remember any more what I wrote on any of those slips of paper, or what anyone else wrote. I’m sure no one else does either. I remember laughing so hard I cried, and I remember, I think, the very few times that Luke’s eye would catch mine, across the table. I remember the giddiness that filled my chest, at being allowed to sit there and make up things with the two of them, for just a few hours. And I still remember that sober moment of reflection, on either of the boys’ faces, when they would decide on the definition they thought was real. It seemed to me almost a moment of respect.
* Because memory alters events, the names of the people and places in this essay have been altered as well.