Friday, 14 December 2012

Can you crack Lewis Carroll's syzygies?

He may be best known for writing Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, but this great author also invented a devilishly difficult puzzle for The Lady

How many of the thousands of readers who have delighted in the Alice books know that Lewis Carroll was not really Lewis Carroll at all (as the Red King or the Mad Hatter might have said)?

He was the Rev Charles Dodgson, a lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church College, Oxford, and a very learned man, indeed. It is odd to see such titles as The Hunting Of The Snark and Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland side by side with the Curiosa Mathematica and The Formula Of Plane Trigonometry in the list of his works given in encyclopaedias.

Either way, during 1891 and 1892, he conducted in The Lady a series of word puzzles invented by himself and called syzygies. These puzzles were entertaining in form, but not so entertaining as their author’s answers to correspondents and competitors. Many of these answers are in his most typical manner. As usual in competitions, the difficulties seem chie’fly to have arisen from doubts as to the true interpretation of the rules.

Carroll did, however, insist that his interpretation of the rules must be final. ‘It is not possible to carry on discussion for ever,’ he wrote in The Lady. ‘Doubtless many readers have frequented cricket matches, and have often heard the umpire say: “You may argue till you are black in the face (the well-known physiological e™ ect of an attack of Sub-acute Syzygitis).” But, when the umpire says, “No ball,” why it is no ball! And so say I.’

But there were complaints from readers as to some of his decisions, all the same. He had rejected, for instance, the word stalish as being not ordinary [the rules stated that words used in the puzzle must be ‘ordinary words given in dictionaries’]; but had admitted hoopest. ‘Glen suggests that I should ask my cook if she has any stalish bread, and thinks she would understand me,’ he explained. ‘No doubt she would; but that is not enough to constitute an ordinary word; it must be in ordinary use in ordinary society. If I were to say to Glen, “That looks a very railwaystationish kind of house,” I have no doubt that she would quite understand the word. As to hoopest, I have already laid down the principle that, if a verb be an ordinary word, I cannot forbid competitors to conjugate it; and I cannot exclude Quakers from this competition. I hold that “to hoop a barrel” is an ordinary phrase. I would not say to my child, “Thou hoopest, I hear”; though I would (if I were a Quaker, and if I had a child, and if that child su™ ered from pertussis), mildly remark to him, “Thou whoopest, I hear”.’

‘NSL [another competitor] further asks if I would admit pertussis, snark, and hooper as ordinary words,’ he adds. ‘Most certainly not! The “ rst is only used by specialists; the second, though used by one extravagant writer, has not as yet been admitted into the English language. The third, I wil laccept, as soon as NSL has found ten person outside Hanwell who habitually use it.'

It was an original rule of the syzygy competition that, ‘Where the score is given as 0*, it is really less than zero, but, by a special favour on the part of The Lady, it is raised to zero.’ As Carroll often pointed out later, a score, so marked ‘really comes out less than nothing; this competitors may think herself very lucky in getting as much as zero.’

American spelling was also severely rejected. ‘Swallow pleads that odor is “surely as ordinary word spelt in the modern way”,’ he writes. ‘I am aware that the Americans are trying to change our spelling, and to rob us of favour, honour, and valour, and all that makes life dear to a Briton; but my answer to them is: “Sor-visagedhonds, shot not so lodly! We croch to no prod foeman! This is British grond!”’

Occasionally, however, he does apologise for a slip of his own, thus he writes: ‘Toofdiarb points out that her proper score was 17 and not 18 as I made it. I find she is right; and I beg pardon, humbly, but hopelessly; for to say that a young lady is 18, when she is only 17, is surely an unpardonable libel! Mentally, I prostrate myself at her feet, and cast ashes on my head; but I trust she will excuse me from doing it practically, as they are so difficult to brush out afterwards.’

But, in general, he shows a proper firmness. ‘The scorer’s position, it must be remembered, is that of to thecompetitor,’ he writes. ‘He is bound to give the lowest mark he lawfully can, and, where a doubt of guilt exists, to give the prisoner the malefit thereof.’

And to one competitor he replies in characteristic verse: ‘I give thee all, I can no more, though poor the offering be. A round duck’s egg is all the score, that I can offer thee!’

Lewis Carroll published his last syzygy for 1891 in The Lady in the issue for 29 October of that year, with the significantcomment, ‘There will be no further competition this year. Whether I can never start another is a question I cannot settle at present. The difficulties inconstructing a really satisfactory set of rules seem almost insuperable.’
LewisCarrol-Dec14-02-590



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