100 Martin Gardner Wordplay Headscratchers

Martin Gardner was a lifelong fan of wordplay, and contributed frequently to Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics, a quarterly magazine established in 1968 at his behest.

In honor of Martin's centennial in Oct 2014, it seems appropriate to offer "100 Martin Gardner Wordplay Headscratchers" rounding up some of the finest examples of the genre which he drew attention to.

The wordplay puzzles below are based on items Martin included in some form or another in one of his wordplay books, as well as on articles he published in Word Ways. Some of them are old classics, others are of his own creation, and many came from friends and associates.

No problems are included that require specialized knowledge of American geography, presidents, etc.

We start with items from The Arrow Book of Brain Teasers (Scholastic Book Services, 1959), which reappeared in revamped form 35 years later as Classic Brainteasers (Sterling, 1994), then move on to Mind-Boggling Word Puzzles (Sterling, 2001), before finishing with material derived from the Colossal Book of Wordplay (Puzzle Wright Press/Sterling, 2010), his last book, written with Ken Jennings.

The last ten headscratchers below concern the interaction of language, letters and numbers, and some have mathematical content.

There has been substantial rewording in the presentations; indeed many of the curiosities in the last-named book above appeared as fascinating facts, rather than in the form of questions. As additional examples have come to light, they have been incorprated.

The point is to give your brain a fun workout. It's completely pointless to look up answers on the internet, or take advantage of programs people have written which can find words with certain patterns. To make those options less tempting, we've purposely avoided using identifying terms like cryptorhythms or acrostic.

Remember the wise words of Bob Crease in Physics World (Oct 2014):

"Googling is not the Gardner way. The Gardner way is to ignite your fascination so that you experience the pleasure of finding the answer yourself."
Are you ready? Have fun!

  1. On five squares of paper, write the letters, W, U, L, A, W one letter apiece. Can you rearrange the pieces of paper in a line to spell the name of an animal?

  2. When Mr. Ollie Lee bought a new car, he requested the licence plate number 337 31770. Why?

  3. Starting with the word SNOWING, show how to remove one letter at a time until only one remains, so that at each stage we are left with a common word.

  4. At the hardware store, the clerk told the curtomer that one cost 30c, fourteen cost 60c, and a hundred and fortyfour cost 90c. What was the customer buying?

  5. T E A A P C
    P E K E N Y

    Can you find six letters to place the blank spaces to spell the name of a familiar sea animal, while also getting six three-letter words running from top to bottom?

  6. A father asked his young daughter if she could construct a snowball sentence, explaining to her what that meant.

    In due course, she replied, "I am not that smart, father."

    Q: Is the girl being ironic?

  7. Why might a tennis player say "10SNE1?"?

  8. What well-known word becomes shorter if you add two letters to it?

  9. What book lists the months with April appearing first and September last?

  10. Mary's mother had three daughters, two of whom were named April and May. Name the third.

  11. Mrs. Rendrag and her husband Nitram had washed up all the dishes from dinner, when she proposed "doing the stop and snap." What was she referring to?

  12. A sheet of paper is claimed to have seven common words on it. You see:
    ZO-ZO   OON   ZOOZ   ZCZ   ZO-N   ZO-ZC   X-Z  

  13. It's been said that day begins with d and ends with e. Explain.

  14. In what sense is "p" the middle letter of the alphabet?

  15. Insert one additional letter in between two of the letters here to get a sentence that makes sense, if gaps are also inserted.
    (Four different solutions exist)

  16. Can you find the only word that can be inserted into exactly one of the blanks shown to give eight sentences with different meanings?

  17. Sugar starts with an "s" that's pronounced "sh" and there is another, unrelated word with the same property. What is it?

  18. A cardinal points and says, "thorn, shout, seat and stew." Explain.

  19. Fill in the blank space to make the sentence true:
    In this sentence there are neither more nor less than _____ 3-letter words.

  20. What is the significance of this strange sentence?

  21. Why would Santa say the following?

  22. Three students were asked to write their names on a piece of paper and pin it to their t-shirts. Their pieces of paper appeared to read:
    31770       31573       317537
    What were their names?

  23. Find the names of five creatures hidden in this sentence.
    "Does the pigeon want to catch the butterfly?"
    (One of them is "pig"...)

  24. Name an animal whose name begins with N.

  25. What's missing below apart from a bone?
    Old Mother Hubbard
    Went to the cupboard,
    To give the poor dog a bone;
    When she came there,
    The cupboard was bare,
    And so the poor dog had none.

  26. What's so special about the family from Sasnake, Kansas, consisting of Pop (Blake DeKalb), Mom (Norah Sharon), Bob, Sis, and Tot? They have a pup named Otto, and own a Toyota.

  27. What property do these sentences share?
    1. "Blessed are they that believe that they are blessed."
    2. "Fall leaves after leaves fall."
    3. "You can cage a swallow, can't you, but you can't swallow a cage, can you?"

  28. What's so special about the words lamina, stressed, and rewarder?

  29. Can you think of an English word that spells its own French translation (in plural form) when spelled backwards?

  30. Note how the first and last words below are reverses of each other.
    R A T  S
    X X X X
    X X X X
    S  T A R
    Can you replace the Xs in the second and third line with two words with the same property, so that recongizable words are also formed vertically?

  31. The words "sensuousness" and "footstool" are nearly palindromes, they almost read the same backwards as they do forwards. What a 9-letter vegetable name that's one letter away from being a palindrome?

  32. What do these sentences have in common?
    1. "A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog"
    2. "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs"
    3. "Jackdaws love my big sphinx of quartz"
    4. "TV quiz jock, Mr. PhD., bags few lynx"

  33. In what sense are the longest words in the dictionary: rubber, smiles, beleaguered, endless?

  34. Shakespeare's invented the 27-letter word "honorificabilitudinitatibus" for the clown to utter in Love's Labour's Lost. There are two unusual things about it, part from its length. What are they?

  35. There's a list that almost begins
    1. Biopsy
    2. Chimps
    3. Chintz
    What do these words have in common? (Hint: "wronged" and "sponged" share a different property.) Three additional common words can be added at the start of the list, what are they?

  36. What do these typed words have in common?
    1. Typewriter
    2. Perpetuity
    3. Repertoire
    Hint: "keyboard" doesn't have this property.

  37. What two common words feature all of the vowels in alphabetical order?

  38. What common word features four z's? How about four k's?

  39. Banana, cocoon, pepper, googol, horror and mammal share an interesting property. What is it? Can you find a 10-letter word that has the same property, suitably extended?

  40. What two-syllable six-letter word has only one syllable when two letters are added at the start?

  41. What three letter word has essentially the same meaning when spelled backwards? It's not a palindrome!

  42. Find a common seven-letter word that does not contain a, e, i, o or u.

  43. "Usher" contains, in consecutive letters, four words (which happen to have something in common). What's the shortest word that contains within it, as consecutive letters, more than 10 common words? There are several examples with fewer than 10 letters.

  44. What two common words end in shion?

  45. What's unusual about this sign seen near a swimming pool?

  46. Can you think of two words to substitute for X and Y below to make sense of the sentence?
    We ___X___ on the ___Y___ way,
    and we ___Y___ on the ___X___ way

  47. By what logic could one claim that fish should be spelled ghoti?

  48. Can you think of a word to substitute for Z below so the meanings are basically opposites?
    ___Z___ guy
    ___Z___ man

  49. If laywers can be disbarred, and ministers defrocked, fill in the blanks here:
    Electricians can be _____ .
    Musicians can be _____ .
    Cowboys can be _____ .
    Models can be _____ .
    Dry cleaners can be _____ .

  50. What two unusual properties does the 19-letter name Jasper Whitcomb Lundy have?

  51. HEAD can be changed into TAIL in five steps, only changing one letter each time, via the intermediate words HEAL, TEAL, TELL and TALL. Can you get from MAN to APE in six steps? Can you get back in five?!

  52. Find four common unrelated words that contain "gp" in the middle of them.

  53. For each of the following strings of letters, find a common word containing it.
    1. "ngu"
    2. "imse"
    3. "mfi"
    4. "ewh"

  54. What two well known astronomical bodies can be spelled using the first letters of the names of the eight planets?

  55. Repunctuate the phrase on this sign by a pool to convey the exact opposite message.
    Private. No Swimming Allowed.

  56. What unromantic message is hidden below:

  57. Put one letter is each of the blanks to make two words:

  58. Imagine a dictionary that listed all of its lookup words with their letters in alphabtical order. "Cat" would appear as one of the words under "act". The first word in such a dictionary would be "a" followed by "aa" (a type of lava). What would the next common word be? It has eleven letters! What two items of clothing would likely be the last two words in such a dictionary?

  59. What pair of letters comes next in this series?
    ST, ND, RD, TH, ...

  60. Find two sets of three consecutive letters in the alphabet, which can be rearranged to form a word. Can you find a set of four such letters?

  61. What three common words end in the letters cion?

  62. A crossword clue reads "Number of fingers" but the answer starts with a J and has nine letters. What is it?

  63. What is unusual about this poem by a famous 19th century writer?
    I often wondered when I cursed,
    Often feared where I would be–
    Wondered where she'd yield her love
    When I yield, so will she.
    I would her will be pitied!
    Cursed be love! She pitied me...

  64. What property of these words frustrates poets?
    orange, month, bulb, wasp, purple

  65. What do the following two examples of verse have in common?
    Upon the flannel beach I heard
    A singing part to "Hair."
    My mermaid's trousers have behind
    The white each peach shall wear.
    Each shall I walk to eat, and I ...
    I do dare!
    Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
    I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
    I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

  66. Name two common words that start and end with he.

  67. Find three common words with adac in the middle.

  68. How many unrelated words can you think of that start with dw?

  69. Find three letters that can go before and after ergro—in some order—to make a word. Can you find an example where those letters appear in the same order at both ends?

  70. Imagine a list of all the whole numbers from 1 to 999, spelled out fully. What's the most common letter of the alphabet which does not appear on the list?

  71. What rearrangement of the letters of ocean gives a word which is also associated with water?

  72. What letter comes next below?

  73. "October" and "Sunday" have no letters in common. What other similar combination shares this property?

  74. What other word can be formed using all of the letters of the word chesty?

  75. What word contains the sequence spb within it?

  76. Find the shortest common word containing three u's which are separated by other letters.

  77. What two common words are formed by rearranging the letters in the names of a color of the rainbow?

  78. What hyphenated word can be formed with the letters abcdefgi?

  79. There's common word in which f is pronounced like a v. What is it?

  80. What commonly found liquid might be referred to as "HIJKLMNO"?

  81. A cardinal point and says, "Worth, mouth, fast, and zest." What did he really mean?

  82. What word contains the sequence chach?

  83. What word contains the sequence tantan?

  84. What eight-letter word contains the sequence abc?

  85. What animal name is twice as long in the plural form, compared with singular form?

  86. There is only one day of the week whose name can have its letters rearranged to form a common word. Which day is it?

  87. What letter comes after AB in the alphabet? It isn't C (or D)!

  88. What rearrangement of the letters of elation gives a word which is also associated with the human body?

  89. Can you think of a three-letter word to substitute for the two blanks below to get a common nine-letter word?

  90. The following magic square—note how each row, column and diagonal sums to 45—has a remarkable property related to language.

    5 22 18
    28 15 2
    12 8 25
    What is it? (Hint: Five has four letters.)

  91. There is one number whose ten-letter name uses ten different letters. What is it?

  92. Since 4 is the only counting number which matches the number of letters in its name, some to refer to it as the "only honest number". Let's loosen up the definition of honest number to include numbers with honest descriptions, so that eight now qualifies since it's "two cubed." Similarly, fifteen is "twenty minus five," twenty-nine is "the largest prime less than thirty," and so on.

    Two questions arise:

    1. Is there an infinite number of such numbers?
    2. Is there a largest dishonest number D, so that all numbers larger than D are honest?

    A good starting place is to seek "witnesses" for the honesty of as many numbers as you can, say the numbers from 1 to 50.

  93. Find digits (0 to 9) to substitute for the letters below, to make a valid multiplication. No two different letters represent the same digit, and the dots are decimal points.

    .M A R T I N
    x .A
    G A R D N E R

  94. Write out the alphabet starting with J, and wrapping around, namely:


    Erase all letters that have left-right symmetry (such as A), and count the letters in each of the five groups that remain. What do you notice?

  95. What's the smallest number name in which a, e, i, o, u, and y all appear? (Ignore occurrences of "and")

  96. What's the smallest number name in which a, e, i, o, and u all appear in that order?

  97. Imagine the numbers from 1 to 1000 listed in alphabetical order, starting:
    eight, eight hundred, eight hundred eight, eight hundred eighteen,....
    what's the last number on the list?

  98. What is significant about the order in which these names are displayed?

    Don Edwards
    Robert Woods
    Edith Reed
    Rolf Oursler
    Jeff Ives
    Jessi Xander
    Rose Ventnor
    Leigh Thompson
    Toni Nesbit
    Pete Norris

  99. Alice in Wonderland opens with the following passage:
    Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?

    Pick any number between 1 and 20, and focus at the corresponding word. Now count forward, one word for each letter of the word you just focused on. Focus on the new word, and repeat, continuing this process until you reach a word so close to the end of the passage that you can't go any further. That's your secret word, determined by the number you selected at the start.

    For instance, if you pick the number 4, the corresponding word is the first "to" in the passage, and 2 words past that is "very." Next, 4 words past "very" is "by," counting another 2 gets us to "sister," 6 more gets us to "having," and so on.

    We'll try to guess your secret word. Hhmm, this is tough. After all, you could have picked any number between 1 and 20. Let's see... we're getting a mental picture of it now. More than one, actually.

  100. A C
    C D
    E F
    G H

    Start with a piece of paper as above, say 2 by 4 inches. It should consist of eight squares, and notice how it has the first eight letters of the alphabet on it. With those letters, many words short and long can be spelled.

    Now, please fold it any way you wish, along the dividing lines shown, over and over, until you have a square packet which is eight levels of paper thick. Trim away all four edges of this packet with a scissors, and spread out the resulting eight squares.

    Some letters will be face up. Focus on those, and form a word with them if you can. If you fail, turn all of the squares over, and try again.

Hopefully by now you have a word. Concentrate on it. We'll try to guess it. It's not easy. You could have ended up with all sorts of words, depending on how you folded and what face-up letters you ended up with. Words like EACH, FACE, HEAD, ACHE, HAD, BADGE, DEAF, BAG, wait, we've got it! It's obvious!