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Style Conversational Week 1498: It’s the Invitational multiverse!

The Empress dishes on this week’s poetry contests, coming and going.

Now we have something else to call an armadillo: a dasypodid. Sarah Walsh and Beverley Sharp did it in poems. (National Wildlife Federation)

I have to put together next week’s Invitational column before tomorrow morning (see my note at the bottom of this page), so I’ll try to restrict the usual blatherama this week.

This week’s new contest, Style Invitational Week 1498, was initially suggested by Sarah Walsh last month in a very different form. “Here’s the idea,” she pitched: “Provide a new definition for words with prefixes (whether or not the prefix acts as a prefix or is just part of the word), as in

“Retreat, v: To give your kid one more cookie so they stop whining already.

“Preface, n: What I have before putting on makeup.

“Debunk, v: Graduate the twins to their own rooms.”

Believe it or not, I don’t like to reject people’s ideas. But I told her that it wouldn’t work: “We’ve certainly done general contests to redefine existing words,” I said. But “I worry, though, that limiting it to words with prefixes (or seeming prefixes) might end up with everyone sending the same ideas, going to the re- and con- and sub- sections of the dictionary and … then it’s going to be obvious what the joke will be. Re-treat: give another treat, or give some more medicine. Debunk: remove from a bunk. Maybe if it came down to the funniest way to use it in a sentence …”

Sarah — channeling the indefatigable Abigail Adams, whom she’s portrayed many times as a historical interpreter — didn’t say the usual okay never mind. Three days later she wrote me again: “How about if we work the non-prefix joke into a poem?” And she enclosed the “debunk” verse that serves as this week’s example, and proved thoroughly Staakeable as well. I further expanded the contest to include any word with a not-really-the-meaning, rather than restrict it to a list of prefixes. (Feel free, of course, to limit the contest yourself any way you like.) Also, your word doesn’t have to be pronounced the same as the original — as long as a decently smart reader will get the joke.

While we haven’t run this particular contest before, our several contests to redefine existing words have produced some classic entries. In fact, a corrupted list of inking entries from Week 278 in 1995 is still circulating around the internet (before that, it traveled through that newfangled email thing), often credited to “this year’s contest of the Washington Post Mensa Invitational” (typical post; see the second list). Here are the (actual) winners from that week (some of the Losers are still active in the Invite); go ahead and parlay any of these idea into a poem if you also include your own flair and preferably another clever element.

Seventh Runner-Up: Carcinoma: n., a valley in California, notable for its heavy smog. (Tom Witte, Gaithersburg) [Seventh runner-up! The Czar pretty much had an unlimited prize budget. The Empress, well, does not.]

Sixth Runner-Up: Asunder: adj., supine. (Jo Lombard, McLean)

Fifth Runner-Up: Esplanade: v., to attempt an explanation while drunk. (Kevin Mellema, Falls Church)

Fourth Runner-Up: Willy-nilly: adj., impotent. (Beth Benson, Lanham)

Third Runner-Up: Flabbergasted: adj., appalled over how much weight you have gained. (Michelle Feeley, Arlington)

Second Runner-Up: Negligent: adj., describes a condition in which you absent-mindedly answer the door in your nightie. (Sandra Hull, Arlington)

First Runner-Up: Excruciate: n., the ligament that attaches your ex-wife to your paycheck. (Kevin Cuddihy, Fairfax)

And the winner of the bag of 49 whoopee cushions: Canticle — n., a modular office space so small and lightless that it saps an employee of all motivation. (Jacob Weinstein, Los Angeles)

Honorable Mentions:

Perplexed — adj., lost in a movie theater. (Michelle Feeley, Arlington)

Population — n., that nice sensation you get when drinking soda. (Lee Mayer and Paul Laporte, Washington)

Racket — n., a small pair of breasts. (Jerry Pannullo, Kensington)

Lymph — v., to walk with a lisp. (Paul Kocak, Syracuse)

Cafeteria — n., A women’s coffeehouse, where the clients drink coffee and cry. (Michael A. Genz, La Plata)

Morass — n., the mess you make when you can never have enough. (Kevin Mellema, Falls Church)

Gargoyle — n., an olive-flavored mouthwash. (Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

Bustard — n., A very rude Metrobus driver. (Christopher Hapner, Savannah)

Debentures — n., false teeth bought on credit. (John Allen, Charlottesville)

Nincompoop — n., the military command responsible for battlefield sanitation. (Bill Strider, Gaithersburg)

Ineffable — adj., describes someone you absolutely cannot swear in front of, such as the Queen Mum, or Martha Stewart. (Jessica Henig, Northampton, Mass.)

Pontificate — n., a document given to each graduating pope. (Brian C. Broadus, Charlottesville)

Seersucker — n., an avid follower of Sydney Omarr, Serena Sabak, etc. (Jonathan Paul, Garrett Park)

Coffee — n., a person who is coughed upon. (David Hoffman, San Diego)

Pimple — n., a panderer’s apprentice. (Meg Sullivan, Potomac)

Discussion — n., a Frisbee-related head injury. (Sandra Hull, Arlington)

Flatulence — n., the emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller. (Russ Beland, Springfield)

Hysteria — n., the anguish caused by listening to low fidelity audio systems. (Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

Peons — n., service personnel who must endure the rabid tirades of angry customers. (Kevin Mellema, Silver Spring)

Internet — n., the web of interns in which Ken Starr has tried to snare Bill Clinton. (Phil Frankenfeld, Washington)

Balderdash — n., a rapidly receding hairline. (Paul Kocak, Syracuse)

Polarize — n., a very cold look. (Jennifer Hart, Arlington)

Brisket — n., a straw container for a mohel’s instruments. (T.J. Murphy, Arlington)

Bluestockings — n., a woman’s term for unfulfilled sexual arousal. (Kevin Mellema, Silver Spring)

Mausoleum — n., floor covering used in crypts. Attractive from the top and bottom. (Barbara Harrison, Hagerstown)

Cursive — adj., sort of cursing, i.e., “Oh, fiddlesticks,” or “H-E-double toothpicks.” (Kevin Mellema, Falls Church)

Ozone — n., area in which the G-spot is located. (Irwin L. Singer, Washington)

Semantics — n., pranks conducted by young men studying for the priesthood, including such things as gluing the pages of the priest’s prayer book together just before vespers. (T.J. Murphy, Arlington)

Rectitude — n., the formal, dignified demeanor assumed by a proctologist immediately before he examines you. (Kyle Bonney, Fairfax)

Asterisk — v., to inquire about the danger of a certain situation. (Jo Lombard, McLean)

Buttress — n., a long strand of derriere hair. (Jennifer Hart, Arlington; Stephen Dudzik, Silver Spring)

Lobster — n., a slick-talking, oily, obnoxious person who represents special interest groups on Capitol Hill. (Elizabeth Monte, Fairfax)

Foundling — n., an apprehended child molester. (E.J. Lloyd, Fairfax Station)

Amenorrhea — n., excessive exaltations of the audience of some sleazy TV preacher. (Paul Styrene, Olney)

Shadow — n., a fish whose husband has died. (Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

Macadam — n., the first man on Earth, according to the Celtic bible. (Barry Blyveis, Columbia)

Marionettes — n., residents of Washington who have been jerked around by the mayor. (Gary L. Kunz, Gaithersburg)

Abdicate — v., to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach. (Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

Oyster — n., a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddish expressions. (Meg Sullivan, Potomac)

Circumvent — n., the opening in the front of boxer shorts. (Greg Arnold, Herndon)

Filibuster — v., to issue a command to a service station attendant. (Jo Lombard, McLean)

Flattery — n., a place that manufactures A and B cup brassieres only. (Tom Witte, Gaithersburg)

Testicle — n., a humorous question on an exam. (Paul Kocak, Syracuse)

Searching through Elden Carnahan’s indispensable Master Contest List, I’m seeing four other times we did this contest, from 2004 though 2016 (the last three using particular sections of the alphabet). Here’s a selection, plus links to plain-text versions of the whole set of results; sometimes you’ll have to scroll down past that week’s new contest.

Week 564, 2004

Apiary: An apartment shared by three bachelors. (Jon Reiser, Hilton, N.Y.)

Juggernaut: A flat-chested woman. (Maja Keech, New Carrollton)

And the Winner of the Inker: Gypsum: The primary ingredient in car undercoating. (Chuck Smith, Woodbridge) [We wouldn’t run this joke today, because of the racial slur “gyp,” a reference to Gypsies, now called the Roma people of Europe; it really is analogous to using the verb “jew” to mean to cheat someone out of money.]

Abed: Defeated in a debate. (Tom Witte, Montgomery Village) [Pronounce it as a one-syllable word.]

Asinine: An almost perfect derriere. (Robin D. Grove, Chevy Chase)

Bedpan: To have an affair with a man who never grew up. (Chris Doyle, Forsyth, Mo.)

Crocodiles: Calls from telemarketers. (Andrea Kelly, Brookeville)

Downplay: To pillow-fight. (Kyle Hendrickson, Dunkirk)

Flatulent: A rental property. (Tom Witte)

Gauche: What librarians do. (Sara St. Thomas, Winchester, Va.)

Rubberneckers: A couple practicing very safe sex. (Ross Elliffe, Picton, New Zealand)

Empress: Use a phony title to increase one’s self-esteem. (Stephen Litterst, Ithaca, N.Y.)

Week 749, 2008

Cremate: Coffee-Mate’s unsuccessful initial brand name. (Kevin Dopart, Washington)

And the Winner of the Inker Arms Akimbo: The notorious Nigerian gunrunner. (Peter Metrinko, Chantilly)

Abjectness: The degree to which your belly protrudes. (Russell Beland, Springfield)

Adverb: Buy! (Duncan Seed, Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire, England)

Arsenal: Completely, all-inclusive. (Bird Waring, New York)

Bandage: Instruments, amps, mics, cocaine, etc. (Tom Witte)

Biceps: Half of a forceps. (Brendan Beary, Great Mills)

Bristling: A newly circumcised baby. (Phyllis Reinhard, East Fallowfield, Pa.)

Cupola: Breast enhancement scams. (Paul Kocak, Syracuse, N.Y.)

Electrocute: Use a Hello Kitty taser. (Kevin Dopart)

Hispanic: What Lou Dobbs demonstrates every time he opens his mouth about immigration. (Christopher Lamora)

Hungarian: Someone who’s always on a diet. (Marty McCullen, Gettysburg, Pa.)

Week 925, 2011

The winner of the Inker: Knothole: Someone who isn’t a jerk. (Jamie Pazur, St. Simons Island, Ga., a First Offender)

Linguine: A person who insists on correcting someone’s grammar or pronunciation when others are present. (Theresa Kowal, Silver Spring, Md.)

Ignorant (n.): A typical blog post. (Kevin Dopart, Washington; Jeff Contompasis, Ashburn, Va.)

Megawatt: A state of total bewilderment or disbelief. (Brendan Beary, Great Mills, Md.)

Lassitude: “Timmy can get himself out of the #*@!@ well. I have better things to do.” (Steve Langer, Chevy Chase; Laurie Brink, Cleveland, Mo.)

Incantation: Singing on the toilet. (Ann Martin, Bracknell, England)

Increase: Where the thong went. (Pam Sweeney, Burlington, Mass.)

Indigo: Harrison Ford’s epitaph. (Doug Frank, Crosby, Tex.)

Open-pit: Describing a sleeveless dress. (Dixon Wragg, Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Installer: A quickie in the restroom. (Craig Dykstra)

Monsoon: Jamaican farewell. (Chris Doyle)

Orthodox: Dentists. (Matt Monitto, Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

Lasso: The Marx sister. (Judy Blanchard)

Midwife: Bride bridging Marriages No. 1 and No. 3. (David Klann, Washington)

Nutmeg: A million Losers. (Kathy Hardis Fraeman)

… and Week 1160, 2016

PITUITARY: So foul-tasting you have to spit it out. (Danielle Nowlin, Fairfax Station, Va.)

SCATTERBRAIN: A typical stage direction in a zombie movie. (Joanne Free, Clifton, Va.)

STUD POKER: Personal protective device to ward off conceited suitors. (Howard Walderman, Columbia, Md.)

And the winner of the Inkin’ Memorial: PERMUTATION: How Chernobyl Fried Chicken offers refunds. (Frank Osen, Pasadena, Calif.)

POTHOLE: An obnoxious stoner. (Andrea Dewhurst, Lynn, Mass.)

QUIBBLE: Pet food for finicky eaters. (Frank Osen)

TYPEFACE: The result of falling asleep at your keyboard. (Ben Aronin, Washington)

YO-YO: Greeting between friends. (Jennifer Dickey, Silver Spring, Md.)

The bards and the bee*: The results of Week 1494

*Headline by Tom Witte for the first time we did this contest, Week 716 — hard to top that one!

Okay, maybe they’re not as coffee-spittingly hawhaw as some weeks’ Invite humor, but in the results of Week 1494, once again our Loserbards were pretty dang funny writing poems containing words that most of us had never heard of, and in some cases couldn’t even pronounce. Twenty-five of them get ink online this week, and about 20 on the print page — quite the florilegium. And I had at least another dozen on my shortlist.

Another option this week, for the less bardular, was to use the word (all had to be taken from Round 4 or later of this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee) in a Q&A-type joke. There were a few good ones, but they all ended up trumped by the poems, often with the same joke idea. So I didn’t run any, though I have in previous years.

I didn’t do a scientific tally, but I think a sizable majority of the poems were from a list of 20 words I’d provided with the Week 1494 Invitational. However, many intrepid Losers looked at the various pages (one per round, 18 rounds and a lightning round) at, discovering gems like “cacoepy,” meaning the mispronunciation of a word — how timely is that! (Kudos to both Frank Osen and Duncan Stevens for their excellent takes.)

I always look forward to seeing new names among the inking Losers, but I wasn’t surprised that this week’s results consisted of a Loserbard A-team. Chris Doyle, who should grow a GOATee, walks off with — I swear I am not making this up — his sixty-second first-place win, with his “chimichurri” ode featuring mass puking at a rest stop:

A funny-tasting chimichurri taco from a Taco Bell

Along a highway in Missouri brought me to E. coli hell:

A restroom filled with puking men where not a single stall was free.

Does misery love company? So people say, but hey, not me.

Kevin Dopart and Melissa Balmain are also fixtures in the Losers’ Circle — Melissa in particular for poetry — but we hadn’t heard much from Stephen Gold in a while. I’m glad to see that the former Glaswegian — whom some of us got to meet when he and his wife visited the States some years ago and proved to be total experts on “The Wire” — couldn’t resist writing a rhyme about the Scottish oatmeal dish called brose, in this case well flavored with malt whisky by “a cereal offender.”

What Pleased Ponch: Ace Copy Editor Ponch Garcia chose his faves this week from the honorable mentions: He singled out Frank Mann’s “torrefaction” parody, Kevin Dopart’s “Fraternity Brose” and both Frank Osen’s and Duncan Stevens’s “cacoepy.” That makes me feel relieved that I didn’t need to telegraph Frank Mann’s joke with a YouTube link, letting the reader figure out during the poem that it was a song parody — which becomes obvious when it reaches “I can’t get no torrefaction.” And I’m not surprised that a copy editor — whose job it is to notice and fix mistakes — would get a kick out of the two takes on “cacoepy,” the mispronunciation of a word. Frank Osen highlighted GOPers’ deliberate “kaMALa,” as if they’re proud they can’t pronounce the vice president’s name correctly, and especially Duncan Stevens’s digest of a slew of commonly butchered words.

See you in two weeks! But I’ll be in touch next Thursday.

Next week, for the first time in almost three years, the Royal Consort and I are going on vacation for a few days — we’ll be joining about a dozen Style Invitational types on a five-day Loserfest trip to Niagara Falls, Canada side — and so I won’t be doing a Conversational next week. But there will, of course, be an Invitational — we haven’t not had a column since, hmm, it looks like Jan. 23, 2000. Next week’s Invite, Week 1499, will be a Bob Staake cartoon contest, and the results will comprise an assortment of robbed-of-ink entries from several recent contests (maybe even this one). I do plan to send out the Substack email newsletter with a link to the new column — what, you haven’t signed up??? — sometime next Thursday, July 28.