MooT Pursuits

MooTI have a soft spot for people who invent games, especially games with words. And by way of some random keystroke, I found myself on the mailing list of Jon Steeves, inventor of MooT, “the game of semantics, etymology, and grammar.” For almost two years now, I’ve received random emails with questions like In Greek it means “rules of the belly,” whereas in English it denotes “the art of eating and drinking well.” What word is it?*

red_wine_bottle_48679Finally, I caved and got a copy of the game. Two weekends ago, on a rainy Saturday evening, we hunkered down with friends and a bottle of good wine and set to it.0

The game consists of 1,008 questions, color-coded for level of difficulty, with a roll of the die determining which color question your team must answer. My initial worry, that the game would be of interest only to language geeks, quickly fell by the wayside. Turns out that lots of people like to discuss the difference between elation and exhilaration or to puzzle out the meaning of the X in X-ray. Also turns out that overthinking grammar or etymology can lead to trouble; members of one team, asked to finish the analogy Choice is to diction as order is to –,” spent so much time arguing about whether diction ought to include one’s accent in addition to one’s choice of words that they blew right past the correct answer of syntax. Another team, asked to translate the Persian phrase shah mat, which is the origin of our term checkmate, quibbled with the answer (the king is dead) because technically the king in a chess game is never even captured.

The progress of the game is ridiculously easy. For each question answered correctly, you advance a marker on a cribbage-like board. More interesting, for us, was the difference between what Steeves has dubbed the Collectivist and Corporate versions of MooT. In the Collectivist version, we all played, as it were, against the game. If we got the answer right, we moved our own marker. If we got it wrong, we moved our opponent’s marker. At first gleefully and then rather routinely, we noticed that with four well-lubricated brains debating and rehashing and coming to consensus, we crushed the game.

Then came the Corporate version. For this, we split into teams, halving our mental powers while raising our anxiety and fear of humiliation. This, we found, was a lot more fun. For one thing, it introduces the concept of risk. If the opposing team doesn’t like your team’s answer, it can challenge with a different answer. If it is correct, you advance not at all, and the other team advances your allotted number of spaces. If it is incorrect, however, the other team retreats that same number of spaces. High stakes rest on, say, whether an erstwhile friend is an ex-friend or a fair-weather friend!

We did have—ahem—some complaints. A few of the answers seem debatable. Is water a food?, for instance, receives a resounding Yes from MooT: “According to the COD [Canadian Online Dictionary?], any substance taken into the body to maintain life and growth is a food.” Well, maybe in Canada. But we looked that one up later, and the Cambridge World History of Food begs to differ. And although we got it right, a question like “Was the day we call June 6th, 1944, ephemeral?” seems a tad misleading. Yes, Jon, the day is ephemeral (duh), but its status as one of history’s watersheds is not.

And the assignment of difficulty sometimes seems a bit arbitrary. That doesn’t diminish the pleasure of a fine social game and a great source of trivia, but let me test my group’s sense of what’s easy or difficult with you, discerning Lingua Franca readers. Bearing in mind that there are four categories—Red (really easy), Green (sort of easy), Yellow (a bit harder), and Blue (hard), to which categories would you assign the following questions? You may answer them as well, if you like, but no using outside resources, and you may wish to adopt our group’s friendly amendment of a two-minute timer.

  1. Which subatomic particle binds quarks: the lepton or the gluon?
  2. A once-common Northern European custom was to drink mead during the 30 days following a marriage. What was this custom called?
  3. Which view is narrower, the vista or the prospect?
  4. Use a hyphenated culinary metaphor to describe an incompletely formed plan.
  5. Which teenagers are resentful: the sullen or the petulant?
  6. What language’s name means “Jewish” in German?

Answers next week. Meanwhile, you can get your own game at



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