Words, proverbially, are wind. They pay no debts, butter no parsnips, cook no rice, build no walls. As Shakespeare put it, summing up, “Words, words, words.”
But proverbs, being shifty things, fit every occasion. So words, occasionally, are said to be tools, and though not deeds themselves, are means to an end, the wings of action, even the foundation upon which nations are built. And they are, too, occasionally, weapons, causing pain, offense, provoking a snit, perhaps, or a world war.
Proverbs don't speak of words as playthings. Many proverbs, though, some of them thousands of years old, are themselves pieces of wordplay, and especially of punning, that lowest form of humor.
Words are playthings, of course (among other things). Just as blocks and miniature space aliens entertain us in childhood, so do words, as words, entertain us in our adult years. To take a delight in reading a novel or a short story in a magazine, and especially a poem, is to take delight not only in its content but in its form as well, in the choice of words and in their arrangement. But the idea of wordplay goes beyond this. For example:
Of course, you've probably heard about the crossword puzzle addict who died and was buried six feet down and three across. But you get the idea. Any of the foregoing examples, expressed in different words, would cease to be funny (or witty, or whatever they happen to be).
The possibilities for wordplay are seemingly limitless, and we exploit them with abandon. We play with language the way we played with our food, pushing the bland and squishy aside, isolating the unfamiliar, poking at it, testing its consistency between thumb and forefinger, trying it on the tip of the tongue. Perhaps, by way of research, inquiring of the cook precisely what it is, where it came from, why it's here (as opposed to being still there, where it might better have remained).
And what makes you go even further, those of you who beguile the hours by writing letters inside little boxes? Why the delight in putting words together so that they form other words? Why this manic obsession with reading DOWN a language that was intended to be read ACROSS? “Always left to right, please. No pointing. No moving the lips.” (By the way, what, precisely, is wrong with pointing at words and moving the lips?)
What about our forebears? Not bears that preceded us but fore-be-'ers—it's a Middle English word—people who were, who existed, before us. (Unless of course you happen to be thinking about the antecedents of a bear, in which case they would be, quite literally, fore-bears.) But bears or not, did our forefathers (and foremothers, too, of course) have this same fascination with words and letters? Did they pass the time by chewing on pencils and playing word games when they ought to have been out besieging some castle or otherwise promoting the advance of civilization?
The short answer is no. (It has only two letters). The longer answer is yes (which has three). The fascination existed, to be sure, but it manifested itself differently, and relatively few people were held in its grip.
Archaeologists have found no prehistoric petroglyphs (Greek petra, rock + glyphe, carving) of crossword puzzles. (Alas, just think how much more impressive that would have been than merely doing them in ink.) Nor has excavation of the pyramids yielded a single fill-in or mixer. No connect-the-dots, no rebus. Not even a vanity license plate.
But acrostics date at least to the Erythraean sibyl (mentioned by Plato), to whose prophecies the term was first applied. She wrote them on loose leaves, in Greek hexameters, and when they were correctly sorted the initial letter of each line combined to spell a word. Hence, acrostic (Greek akros, outermost, etc. + stichos, line).
The same technique was used in the Old Testament. In the 119th Psalm, for example, the stanzas begin with sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. It's known, by the way, as the Abecedarian Psalm, abecedarian meaning like or relating to the alphabet. Notice, too, that the word abecedarian is similar to the word alphabet, each containing the alphabet's beginning letters: A-Be-Ce-Darian and Alpha-Bet(a).
Palindromes were popular in ancient Rome. Lawyers liked this one: “Si nummi immunis,” which carries the same message right to left as it does from left to right—If you pay you will go free.
Also traceable to ancient times is the word square, the most famous being the so-called SATOR square.
The square was discovered in England in 1868, in a church in Cirencester built by the Romans in about 300 A.D. Arepo, the only non-Latin word in the square, is Celtic for a plough, but it is presumed to be a name. (The same square was found in 1936 inscribed on plaster in the ruins of Pompeii, which was destroyed in an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.)
The square has been translated variously as “Arepo, the sower, watches over his works,” “The sower Arepo holds the wheels at work,” “Arepo the sower holds the wheels with force,” etc.
Notice that ROTAS and SATOR are palindromes—each, spelled backward, becomes the other—and that the square may be read in four directions. It's also been pointed out that if one starts reading at the S's there are four ways of reaching SATOR OPERA TENET (“The Creator maintains his works”), and that SATOR OPERA TENET is an anagram of PATER NOSTER A (ET) O—Our Father, Alpha and Omega (beginning and end), and that the letters could be arranged in the shape of a cross:
It was also suggested that the square was intended to be used as a cure for toothaches. For the magic to work, the sufferer had to eat the words—literally. So they were to be written on pieces of bread and butter, which would be the vehicles of their consumption. This theory draws support from the fact that the only examples of the word square so far discovered by archaeologists have been engraved or written on walls, all the edible examples having perhaps been eaten.
Riddles, too, have roots deep in the past. As Kevin Crossley-Holland puts it, “The business of naming began with the Creation; the business of deceiving followed soon after, in the Garden of Eden.”
Among the best known is the riddle posed by Samson to the Philistines: “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness,” based on his having seen a swarm of bees making honey in the carcass of a lion. They answered it correctly, with the help of Delilah, and Samson's wrath resulted in the deaths of thousands of Philistines.
In the Greek legend of Oedipus, you may recall, a less than good-natured Sphinx confronted Oedipus on his way to Thebes and posed the following riddle: “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” He answered it correctly. “It is man,” he said, “who crawls as a child, walks upright in his prime, and uses a cane in old age.” Whereupon the Sphinx committed suicide, and Oedipus, who had already killed the King of Thebes, not knowing that he was his father, then married the queen, Jocasta, who he later found to be his mother. When the truth came to light, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus tore out his own eyes.
Such dismal experiences aside, the Greeks delighted in riddles. They were primarily entertainment, to be sure—riddles were standard fare at banquets. But to the Greek they were more than mere entertainment. The Greeks placed high value on skill in riddling, which they regarded as a measure of intelligence and of the quality of one's education.
Riddles were common elements in the life and legend of virtually every other culture. The Egyptians liked them, and they are found in important early Persian writings, for example, and in sacred works of Hinduism.