It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays. I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons. Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class. Science just wasn’t my thing. In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.
Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago. There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus. Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.
Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion. And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember. The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.
I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend. Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess. This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017. Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays. For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday. Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.
By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points. But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately. Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.
So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game. The guy is good. He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.” I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia. Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play. Challenge! Off the board it went.
I guess it pays to know your Latin. “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S. The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.” After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”). No! It doesn’t! Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin. And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.
I was not so lucky when it came to other plays. One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.” I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead. Just call me stupid right now, shall we? Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble. Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.
If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?” To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way. Does that taste like onions to you? The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.” Oh, you think that’s bad? Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic. Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”
These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think? When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.” My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.
But that’s quite okay. I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”