Note: Unusual words that are playable in Scrabble appear in this article in boldface.
Stephin Merritt’s little words are finally helping him out.
For his 1999 album 69 Love Songs, Merritt, the leadman of The Magnetic Fields, wrote a song called “All My Little Words.” In it, he despairs over the inability of his weeny words to prevail over a potential paramour:
You said you were in love with meBoth of us know that that's impossibleAnd I could make you rue the dayBut I could never make you stay
Not for all the tea in ChinaNot if I could sing like a birdNot for all North CarolinaNot for all my little words
But if they couldn’t help Merritt win over that jo, the celebrated songster is more sanguine about the utility of the most lilliputian locutions in a different sort of conquest.
Asked recently what advice he’d give to novice Scrabble players looking to upgrade their game, Merritt endorsed playing small ball. “Learn the two-letter words. That was what improved my game, being able to play xu and za. I couldn’t remember these things.”
To help commit them to memory, he started writing little mnemonic poems featuring the weensiest words of the Scrabble lexicon in littlish, somewhat Seussian quatrains.
Xu—an extinct Vietnamese currency domination worth one-hundredth of a dong—and za—pizza—are joined by 99 other lexical lulus to earn entry into Merritt’s new book, 101 Two-Letter Words, illustrated by longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast.
Speaking in an interview in a bitsy minipark in the West Village, Merritt said that mutual admiration and serendipitous timing brought him and Chast together.
“Roz wrote me a fan letter about a couple days after my editor decided it was time to find an illustrator. So I returned her fan letter with a counter fan letter: ‘Thank you for enjoying my work. Would you like to do a book with me? What is your agent’s phone number?’”
Together, the twa have produced an eyesome, gamesome, winsome, witty wordbook sure to please gamesman and tyro alike.
“I have nothing but contempt for the American fascination with numbered lists, yet, here I am doing my second project as a numbered list,” Merritt admitted.
As the title suggests, the book presents 101 two-letter words: the entirety (until very recently—see below for more on that) of the list permissible in Scrabble. Each word, from aa to za, gets its own two-page spread with a poem and a pic. The text is peppered with internal rhymes and repeated letter combos. The cartoons zing, whirr, and reverberate harmonically, making each entry a sort of duet.
Or maybe it’s more like listening to a two-person band. At times your ears are taken by the lyrics; at others they’re drawn to the guitar or drum.
The poems are each self-contained, but like themes in an album, characters like Ma, Pa, and the Vampire Dog (modeled on Merritt’s former pet Chihuahua, Irving Berlin Merritt), pop up again and again.
And if one reads between the clever rhymes, the author’s persona twinkles through.
There are mentions of atheism (Merritt is one), vegetarianism (“I ain’t et an animal since 1983”—Merritt is a vegan), grammar (Merritt was once a copy editor at Time Out New York), the kazoo (Merritt owns several), and interests of the author’s such as foreign and sci-fi films, musicals, and Top 40 hits.
Above all, the book oozes music. The Ms alone skank with ska, swell with opera, and hiccup with a hemidemisemiquaver—a sixty-fourth note. (If you’re wondering, hemidemisemiquaver is technically playable though it’s too long to even fit on a Scrabble board. It does however fit on a Super Scrabble board, which is twice the size and played with twice the number of tiles. Merritt enjoys playing both.)
The entry for of marks the preposition’s service to both the wordsmith and the tunesmith:
Of (rhymes with dove), a useful wordfor amorous versifiers,is in the Poet’s toolbox ’neath the needle-nosèd pliers.
“In songwriting, lesson No. 1 is, you try not to use the word love,” said the amorous versifier who authored those lines, “because then you have to rhyme it. And there’s no rhyming it without cliché. John Lennon said he found it difficult to write a love song without using the word love, which says something about John Lennon.”
“There’s a lot of music in the book,” he continued, between the horn honks and break screeches along Bleeker Street and Sixth Avenue. “And that wasn’t deliberate at all. Except for nine of them are musical words: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti—and si—are musical. And ut. (It’s pronounced ‘oooh.’) So 10 of them are usable terms. I had never heard of ut before working on this book. It’s obsolete.”
Nor had he known ti and si were playable. “Si is the old form. It was do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si, do. Until a nun in 1910 decided that that wasn’t different enough from the other syllables, and it stuck. I assumed it was always ti, because that’s what Rodgers and Hammerstein told me. I believed them.”
Merritt also litters the pages with his own favorite poly-lettered words. In a wonderful entry for so, he taps the word socko.
“I say ‘swell’ and ‘yikes’ and ‘socko.’ I’m a walking Guys and Dolls minor character. I am Damon Runyon. I am the tulku of Damon Runyon. On his deathbed he said, ‘You’ll know my tulku. His name will be Stephin Merritt. He’ll be born in Yonkers.’”
Merritt reflected on just how much the characters in the book were his own tulkus. “Do I come out in the book, I wonder? There’s certainly gay characters… In Gus, it’s not clear if I mean me or not.”
Us is me and Gus, drivingour bus across the land;when we die, just bury ustogether, hand in hand.
Just a few months ago, in the window after Merritt wrote 101 Two-Letter Words but before it was published, Scrabble and Merriam-Webster released the new, 5th Edition of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.
The 5,000 new words added to the updated playable lexicon included four fresh two-letter words. Asked if he knew the names of the newborn quadruplets, Merritt recalled two: gi—a karate outfit—and po—a chamber pot. (The other two are da—meaning father—and te—an alternate spelling of ti.)
“I haven’t yet made mnemonics for them yet,” Merritt explained. “Email me.”
Other new admissions to the dictionary include qayaq—an alternate spelling of kayak—and thongy. Merritt approves.
“They say [qayaq is] a better Anglicization of the Inuit word kayak. I love it. Nice high-scoring word. We should have more Inuit words in our language. Let’s all make Inuit friends and learn their vocabulary. Especially the high-scoring vocabulary.”
He broke off into silence. Passersby passed by, displaying the full pageantry of West Village life.
“Now I’m just imagining wearing something thongy,” Merritt riffed. “While smoking something bong-y. Listening to a comic routine… more than a little Cheech and Chong-y.”
One of the many pleasures of the book is to see the lyricist frolic in another form. He’s adamant about the differences.
“Mostly lyrics don’t and shouldn’t work as poetry. Architecture doesn’t work as poetry and no one thinks that that’s a problem. I think Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics don’t read all that well on the page, with a few exceptions. Like ‘I’m Still Here,’ which actually works really well spoken.”
The change in medium has manifested itself oddly as well.
“It turns out it’s much easier to sign a stack of books than a stack of CDs. Rather than risk your fingernails trying to open the stupid jewel case.”
As for the creative process of writing mnemonic verses versus songs? “There’s not all that much similarity. Except that I was able to do it in the same setting: sitting around in bars. But I can sit around in bars and do lots of things.”
A couple of days later, an email arrived in my inbox at a little past midnight:
In the middle of the night,one sometimes has to go;the floor is cold, the loo is far...just pee into the po.