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Goiter, the Odd Word Game I Played with my Mother that Probably Explains a Lot About my Poetry

I don’t know how this game started or when exactly, though I was probably around ten years old. I’m guessing it started spontaneously, triggered by a strange word that somebody dropped in conversation, and then it took off like a stand-up comic’s routine, a kind of “Who’s on First” for two irreparably silly linguaphiles. It never went on long, but the goal was to keep being silly until someone got stumped or stretched the unwritten rules too far. Here are three typical “rounds” of the game that I’m calling, in the spirit of the spontaneity that incited the game, “Goiter.”


The game starts when someone says a word like goiter in conversation. Most any rarefied or rarely spoken word will do. My mom mostly played the straight man person, though that could shift.


ME: Goiter? I know what a goiter is. It’s that thing along the roof that catches the water.

MOM: That’s a gutter.

ME: No. That’s where you get cow’s milk; you pull on their gutters.

MOM: No, that’s an udder.

ME: No, that’s when it’s not this one it’s the udder one.

MOM: No, that’s other.

ME: Other? That’s the parent that’s not your father.

MOM: That’s mother.

ME: Mother? That’s what you do when you put a pillow over someone’s head.

MOM: That’s smother.

ME: No. That’s when something is sleeker and shinier.

MOM: That’s smoother.

ME: Smoother? That’s the drink that’s like a milkshake.

MOM: That’s a smoothie.

ME: Oh.


Although I’ve never done it, I can imagine a teacher assigning this game in a poetry class and then asking students to write a poem using the words: goiter, gutter, udder, other, mother, smother, smoother, smoothie. It would be a silly poem.


Sometimes the game got quickly beyond silly.


This game starts when someone says dichotomous.


ME: Dichotomous? That's an animal that lives in the rivers of Africa.

MOM: That’s a hippopotamus.

ME: Hippopotamus? That’s when something is just too unbelievable.

MOM: That’s preposterous.

ME: Preposterous? That’s the animal that lives in the rivers of Africa.

MOM: No, that’s still a hippopotamus.

ME: No, no. The hippopotamus is part of the brain.

MOM: That’s the hippocampus.

ME: No. That’s a van converted for hippos to sleep in when they travel.

MOM: That’s a hippo camper.

Me: Right.


The assignment: write a poem using dichotomous, hippopotamus, preposterous, hippopotamus, hippo camper.


Another game. This one begins when someone says numinous.


ME: Numinous? I know what that is, that’s when something is lit up, when it’s bright.

MOM: No, that’s luminous.

ME: Luminous? No. That’s a kind of soft coal. Luminous, rather than anthracite.

MOM: That’s bituminous.

ME: Bituminous is what happens when something swells up.

MOM: No, silly, that’s tumesce.

ME: Tumesce? That’s what you get when you have cancer.

MOM: That’s a tumor.

ME: No, that’s when you laugh easily, you have a sense of tumor.

MOM: Humor. That’s humor.

ME: Nope. Humor is what you get when leaves rot on the forest floor.

MOM: That’s humus.

ME: That’s what you are if you’re funny.

MOM: That’s humorous.

ME: That’s when something is gigantic.

MOM: Humungous.

ME: That means around. There are aliens humungous.

MOM: That’s among us.

ME: Among? Those are people from Southeast Asia.

MOM: Hmong.

ME: That’s a kind of bean.

Mom: I think you mean mung.

ME: No. That’s a religious person who lives in isolation.

MOM: That’s a monk.

ME: Right.


You know the assignment.


The goal of the game was to keep going without being called out for being, well, too preposterous. If the player who was responsible with moving the game along got stumped, the other player could jump in. Or the second player could overrule with a more clever turn. For example, Mom could have jumped in when “humus” came along and said, no that’s a paste made with chickpeas. Then the two players would have shifted roles for a while. It’s important to remember that the game is not a competition; it’s more like two people trying to set a record for consecutive completed frisbee passes.

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