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The Game of “Ghost”

This is just a relatively brief post on a lighter topic, which we certainly all need from time to time.

Have you ever heard of the spelling game “Ghost”? My mother taught it to me. I will note that more people used to play word games at parties or on trips. James Thurber had an essay in a collection of his which I read, about the clever vocabulary and knowledge games that he and his literary friends used to play. I don’t remember them, but they sounded like fun. I could never round up enough people to do those, or I just didn’t habituate in the right circles. It would have been my idea of a good party, though, to play those.

I don’t think that many people play such challenging games now at parties, but maybe a few do. I guess that people play Pictionary, which I would not want to play, because I cannot draw very well at all. Charades I have played, but it is not my favorite. I’m sure that some of you remember some good “intellectual” games, but it has to be played with friends who are in the same range, because if some are not good at it, they will feel intimidated or even insulted. I remember a little get-together at the home of a brilliant graduate professor of philosophy, and he wanted to play some kind of erudite trivia; and a couple of people there did not like the game, so we only had two questions., and stopped.

Back to “Ghost.” It is a fun game, the object of which is to not actually spell a word. It goes like this: A player starts by saying a letter of the alphabet. He or she only has to have a word in mind, which is more than three letters. The next player adds a letter, which again has to be part of a word, not likely the same word,, just any word with those two letters. Then the next player follows along. The person who loses is the one who either unwillingly or perhaps even unwittingly, completes a word with his letter, or cannot think of any letter which would not finish a word, and which would actually continue the spelling of a word which she or he has in mind.

It would go like this: The first player might say “B.” He could be thinking of any word starting with B. The next one says, “A” She could have all sorts of words in mind, from barracuda to bannister. If a player thinks that the other player does not have a word in mind, he can challenge, and if there is no such word, or if the other player is spelling it wrong, the challenge wins. Whoever loses that round is penalized, by being given the G in Ghost. If you lose five times, you are a Ghost, and you lose.

Back to this example, we have a B and an A. The third player can say, “T.” because three-letter words don’t penalize you, they must be four or more. So we have BAT. What word is she thinking of? Maybe “bath.” though there of course are others. So the next player (and actually you only need two players to play, that can be more fun), does not want to say, “H,” or he loses, he has completed a word. So he says, “C.” What word is he thinking of? “Batch.” Now, faced with BATC, is there any way out for the next player in turn, without saying, H? Saying, “A,” and thinking of “Batcave”? That is not a word! By the way, you can’t use plurals or suffixes in the game. So without looking it up, I would say that whoever follows BATC loses. Anyway, that’s how the game goes. Depending on how many players are in the game, and two or three are best, you have to try to think ahead, and not get stuck.

Everyone I have taught this game to, has enjoyed it; it goes fast, and takes some spelling and vocabulary ability. Try it at home!

Okay, now to the dramatic part of the story. We were driving home from some longish trip, and my mother and father and I were going to play. My brother is seven and a half years younger, and we would not have left him out, but maybe he did not want to play or was not in the car. Anyway, we went along, and I started a round, and said, “S.” My father said, “O.” My mother said, “O.” This was not good for me! We had SOO. What letter could I add which continued the spelling of a word, but did not finish it? Not T, as that spells SOOT. Not N, which spells SOON. Not P, because SOOP is not a word, even for spellcheck or Gwyneth Paltrow!

So I just lost that round? No! I was determined to find a word! I thought for a few minutes, with my parents understandably rushing me along, and then I had the answer! I said, “G.”

My mother immediately challenged, and I said, “SOOGY.” “Huh??” “SOOGY??” “That’s not a word!.” “Yes, it is! It is in my book, ‘The Jinx Ship,’ which you got me.” (That is a great seafaring mystery by the author Howard Pease, who wrote several of them, always involving a voyage on a tramp steamer, and involving a murder or two, with a college lad named Tod Moran being the main character, and often, the tattooed man, Captain Jarvis, brilliantly solving the mystery. My parents had gotten me the book and I loved it.)

Anyway, in the book, someone says something about washing down the decks with soogy water. And I had always remembered it. So that must be a word, and I win! My father said that it might have been a misprint and they meant soggy water. ??? What is soggy water??

So that stopped the game, and we got home, and I found the book, and there it was! Soogy water. Well, my father tried to look it up, could not find it in the dictionary, but then at work the next day, he found one which did indeed have the word “soogy” in it, defined in the term “soogy water,” as a kind of mixture used to swab decks.

So I was right! Which got me nothing except satisfaction, that I had rather amazingly pulled out a win from a sure loss, like some kind of seven-cushion shot in pool. Only Howard Pease could have also won in that spot. 🙂 We never forgot that word, and it would be brought up from time to time.

Well, a few years later, we went to Magic Mountain to see the fine magician Harry Blackstone, Jr. He had one audience participation trick, where his assistant passed out slips of paper to the audience, and everyone had to fill out the name of an object. He then collected them and started reading them. He came to “soogy water.” My father had put that on the slip! Blackstone started to read it, said, “I don’t know what this says.” My father yelled out, “Soogy water!”

I was embarrassed, but the rest of he family thought it was very funny. Soogy water was never forgotten in my family! More than leaping up and making the game-saving spearing of a line drive, in an adults vs. teenage sons softball game; or saying to someone shooting baskets on the playground at lunch in junior high school, “I’ll show you how to shoot!” when the ball rolled off to me walking by, and then somehow making about a thirty-foot hook shot which amazed him; or winning our first ever junior high school spelling bee, that was one of my most heroic moments in competition. I am proudest of “soogy water,” because many people can catch line drives or make difficult shots at a much higher level, but very few could have gotten out of “SOO” in Ghost! If you are ever in that position, you now have the winning play. My parents would be proud.


4 Responses

  1. I have never heard of the “Ghost” game. It sounds like fun. We played Scrabble a lot when I was growing up. My grandparents loved Scrabble. They would play it together in the evenings. They had a huge Oxford English Dictionary in their living room on an antique mahogany book stand that I believe they bought when they were living in London after WWII. They would use the OED to look up unusual words for Scrabble. I was always fascinated by that dictionary as a child. It seemed magical, so full of new words to learn.

    It was very impressive of you to remember “soogy” from your children’s book when you were playing “Ghost” with your parents. That word is unfamiliar to me so I had to research it!

    This is what I found: Soogy is an old British nautical word sometimes spelled “soogee-moogee” but also “soogie-moogie”, “soogy moogy” or just plain “soogy”. As a noun, soogy is a mixture containing caustic soda that is used for cleaning paintwork or woodwork on boats. As a verb, it means to clean with the soogy mixture. It may have come from the Japanese word “souji” which means cleaning.

    That was really fun to research. I love learning new words, with their meanings and origins. Thank you, William!

    • I am glad you enjoyed it. My parents sometimes played scrabble, but I did not, more than once or twice. I should be good at it, but I really was not. I played with a woman I was dating, years ago, and she was beating me; I did not know the strategy, I kept holding on to my high-value tiles, hoping for some big triple value word, but it would not come up; and she would put in small words, and get the points. It is just not my game. Ghost, I was very good at, though, and Trivial Pursuits, though likely not as good as RD, from a post she wrote on it.

      • I may be the only person in the world who has never played “Trivial Pursuit”. I don’t know if I would be good at it or not.

        Apparently, classic board games are having a bit of a renaissance because of the pandemic. That seems like a healthy trend.

        Classic board games I played as a child were “Candyland”, “Chutes and Ladders”, “Clue”, “Uncle Wiggily” and, of course, “Monopoly”. I used to let my brother win at “Monopoly” because winning meant so much to him and it meant nothing to me. As far as TV game shows go, I have always loved “Jeopardy” and used to enjoy watching “Concentration”.

        • Ah, yes, Uncle Wiggily. What a great game, and great stories for children. I am glad that people still read them to their children, judging from various comments on Amazon. I played the other ones, too.

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