Origins of the Quandary
Rudi Seitz. Boston, MA. October 1, 2009.
Quadrivial Quandary gestated for eight years before I built it. The idea dates to 2001 when I was a software engineer at a fledgling company in Boston. To chose our name, the CEO locked himself in an office, pored over a Marquesian dictionary, and emerged with avaki. It means "an equitable distribution of resources," a perfect fit for a venture focused on data sharing. When a startup fails, an enormous amount of effort dissipates into history, and among the losses, we don't often remember the sweat spent on the company's name. When Avaki stopped sailing, I mourned the breakup of our team, the uncertain future of our product, but also our name, which never got its chance to shine. Back when the name was a hotly contested candidate, I took a strong liking to it (stronger than you might expect from an engineer with no background in branding). I remember thinking I'd love to scour an exotic dictionary for a company name -- what delightful work!
Though the search for Avaki's name intrigued me, and though my programming job in the early 2000's included a share of cerebral challenge, my appetite for linguistic play wasn't being quenched. The pleasure of words has always been a big part of my life, but one that I've experienced in unpredictable fits of hunger. I will go for months without learning any new words, and then suddenly I will begin devouring every word I can find, searching my favorite lexicons, wondering how I ignored their pleasures for so long. It's as if I've regained my sense of smell after a sinus infection, and am now consuming all of the items whose pungency and deliciousness had been lost on me.
When my craving for words resurfaced in 2001, I found I had no forum in which to express it, no partners in crime. Some of my friends share an enthusiasm for words, but who would enjoy my obscure linguistic finds and practice using them with me? Looking for a way to express my orientation as a logophile, I wrote lists of my favorite words on index cards, tacking them all over the walls of my otherwise anemic cubicle. Much of my time at work in those days was spent on the tedious maintenance of legacy software, but once in a while I would peer up from my screen full of bug-infested machine code, see a word like crepuscular, and celebrate: "There is this, too. The same world that has given me software defects has given me 'crepuscular.'" The magic of words has long been my refuge in a universe full of malfunction.
Returning from vacation one Monday, I found my word lists had changed. My co-workers had redecorated my cube in a Poland Spring theme, posting ads for bottled water everywhere and replacing all of my beautiful words with the phrase "Got water?" Index cards that had contained a bristling salmagundi of terms now held twenty repetitions of "Got water?" Diversity: clobbered. Even the Chinese calligraphy on one wall had been rewritten.
After I performed the requisite begging and pleading, I reclaimed my stolen index cards and put them back on the walls. Seeing my cube come to life again made me realize how attached I had become to the company of those words. They seemed at once emblems of a distant landscape and symbols of my true home. Somewhere, I knew, there was a bigger place in my life for all these words.
It's frustrating to be a word lover. Perhaps the best time is high school, when there's no need to justify your passion. If logophilia makes you an outcast among fellow adolescents, your growing vocabulary seems like a path to adulthood. Big words are the keys to deciphering adult ideas and joining adult conversations. Cosmetically they signal sophistication, like an elegant tie or broach. If nothing else, they will help you score well on the SATs, and get into your college of choice. But for most high school grads, an enthusiasm for words will never again be so closely aligned with the concerns of the moment.
Later in life, after SATs and college term papers are complete, the benefits of a large vocabulary can be elusive. Certainly, it helps to know the canonical words in a mature vocabulary, the words you need to use in job interviews and professional presentations. If you become a specialist in something, you must be fluent in its jargon. But eventually you master all the words you really need, and reach a point of diminishing practical returns. What do you do with all the obscure, fascinating, and arguably unnecessary words that you, as a logophile, eagerly ingest?
Throngs of popular books promise that expanding your vocabulary is the key to success in life: it will win you social status, a better job, a higher salary. How often is this borne out? In my experience, there's little to be gained from dropping an unusual word on a crowd -- unless it's a crowd of fellow logophiles. No one has ever hired or friended me because I used an esoteric word. Communication skills are important in daily affairs, but you can communicate just fine with a modest set of words. In fact, vocabulary and eloquence are sometimes at odds. There are few contexts where one can use obscure words without sounding pretentious or out of touch with how people really speak.
As an aspiring writer, I have found my interest in words is sometimes treacherous. An obscure word is often more an interruption than an aid to communication. Knowing exotic words can be a liability, since you are tempted to use them when they aren't really appropriate. Is there any forum, then, where one can share the pleasure of interesting words? And is this accessible if one does not become a linguist or lexicographer?
Certainly there are lots of games for word lovers. Scrabble and crossword puzzles come to mind, and most people who learn of my logophilia assume I must be an ardent devotee of such games. I respect Scrabble addicts and those who follow the Puzzle Master Will Shortz on NPR Sundays, but I don't find myself rushing to participate. If there are different varieties of logophiles, my bent is more semantic than syntactic. I'm only mildly amused when one word spelled backwards yields another. What excites me most about words are the ideas they capture, the way they fuse concepts with sounds and rhythms, and the way they provide a window into history. I feel a visceral thrill when I hear the name of a concept that I recognize but have never been able to describe succinctly. I'm less titillated by the search for words with obscure orthographic properties, undertaken to win a Scrabble game.
And unlike some logophiles, I don't have an encyclopedic memory. My working vocabulary is pretty good, but I need to practice a word to keep hold of it. Just looking up its definition doesn't mean I'll know it forever. When I don't work out, I fall out of shape.
For years I wondered how best to stay in shape as a word lover, how to bring more words into my life, make the celebration of words a part of each day? At Avaki, the perfect context arose. My friend, college classmate, and co-worker Eli turned out to be a fitting partner in crime. Although he wasn't consumed enough to post vocabulary cards in his own cube, Eli shared a fascination for words, from their meanings to their appearance on a page. (At Yale he had learned to use an old manual printing press, and he and our classmate Rachel would one day print their wedding invitations in beautiful type on that same press.) Eli and I began checking various dictionary websites for their words of the day. We chose four sites and vowed to master their words every day.
Soon we realized there was no way to bring four words into our vocabulary if we had no opportunity to use them. We could practice by using each word in its own sentence, but could we go further and use all four in the same sentence -- one that illustrated the words' meanings? That's how the yet unnamed Quandary began. Every morning, I'd be interrupted by an IM from Eli with a long and intricate sentence using four words I didn't know. One moment, I was tracking down an insidious software bug, and the next moment I was inspecting a necklace of four resplendent jewels.
The effort to devise my own sentence was a gymnastic awakening for my mind, the honing of an inner sense. Stuffing four difficult words into the same sentence requires a miniature feat of invention -- it's a microcosm of the creative process. You start with four seemingly unrelated things and look for links among them. You try to devise a story that encompasses all of them, and then you try to compress that story into one sentence. Sometimes the story jumps outside the bounds of the sentence, and you've got to push it back inside. I couldn't imagine a better workout!
I played this game with Eli for several years, with the occasional participation of other co-workers, who were sometimes amused, sometimes bewildered by our enthusiasm. In time we cultivated a set of rules for play. Most important: the sentence must express the meanings of the words. A good test of this is to substitute some completely unrelated word into the sentence -- does it work? If so, the sentence likely fails to capture the meaning of the Quandary word. Each word should be essential, impossible to tear out.
We also decided that in this game, invention supersedes but does not extinguish grammatical propriety. The constraint of fitting all the words into one sentence, working within grammatical and syntactic boundaries, is what makes the game interesting. And yet, we allow ourselves to write longer sentences, making more generous use of semicolons and parenthetical expressions than might be kosher in professional copy. We try to be as grammatical as possible, without killing joy.
A third rule is that the sentence should express a coherent idea or story. That is the true test of whether the quandary has been resolved. Sentences that exist for the sole purpose of containing the four words are less interesting than those that burst forth, expressing their message with conviction. The sentence should seem as if its author had started with something he or she really wanted to say, and these four words were the best tools for getting it out.
This challenge was the highlight of my day, through the few years that Eli and I sustained it. After a while, unfortunately, Avaki dissipated, and so did our routine of playing the word game.
In 2008, I launched my own startup, a company that intended to spread the joy of words. Not content to implement a mere game site, I shot for the stars, launching a project called Whimwords. This venture is about using words to make social connections. A whimword is an icebreaker, an interesting word or phrase that expresses something about you. You write it on your name tag at a mixer or convention, wear it on a T-shirt, or otherwise reveal it to someone in conversation. If you see that my whimword is "bug," you have a good excuse to approach me and ask a question. How did you pick bug as your whimword? Well, I'm a software engineer, so I spend lots of time dealing with bugs. Also, I've always found bugs -- real insects -- to be visually fascinating, and I've got a few mounted specimens hanging on my home walls. Are you repelled or do you want to know more (and what's your whimword)? In any case, we've started a conversation.
A whimword is more than an icebreaker, it's an address. You register your whimword on our website. If you know someone's whimword (perhaps you only saw it in passing), you can get in touch with them through our website or texting service. It's a great way of connecting discreetly, and in circumstances when you didn't manage to swap contact information with the person of interest. A quick glance at the whimword on their tag is all it takes to ensure the possibility of reconnecting. Our mission: harness the power of words to help people start conversations, and make it easy to follow up an initial contact. Our motto: "From words to conversation."
Through this project, I hoped to parlay my love of words into a mechanism for helping people meet, and for ameliorating that anxiety that we often feel in social situations -- how to take the first step, break the ice? I dug up the vocabulary cards from Avaki and brought them to one of our first Whimwords mixer events, dreaming of a day when people across my city, Boston, would be using those very words to connect.
Reality set in. As months passed and my hopes for Whimwords remained in the clouds, my daily experience was dominated by operational challenges: how to get a company up and running, how to get a team working smoothly, how to build adoption for a fledgling and unfunded service. I struggled to be chief executive and chief engineer at once, the need to make quick decisions always tugging against my penchant for research and deliberation.
A year of work on Whimwords brought occasional moments of light -- glowing comments from a stranger, decent web traffic after one of our demo events, enthusiasm from a potential investor -- but they were too few and far between to sustain me. I had come to associate "shakeups" with the sort of thing large bureaucracies attempt to do with little effect, but here I was in my company of a few volunteers, seeking a shakeup of my own.
I decided to return to my roots, remembering the love of language that had inspired Whimwords. First in mind was the word game I used to play with Eli. I had gained good practice building web applications through Whimwords and earlier projects, so I was able to get Quadrivial Quandary up and running in just a couple of days. Why had I waited so long?
The experience of working on QQ -- after just a week at the time I'm writing this -- has been different from Whimwords. My first project aimed to change the world, setting up a new pathway for social connection, whereas QQ is just a game. But in a short time, QQ has experienced glimmers of success that have eluded Whimwords. Friends are visiting the site and contributing their posts. Strangers have discovered it and started to participate. Already I'm getting requests: I want an RSS feed, I want to follow QQ on Twitter. There's something addictive about it -- struggling to fuse four concepts and seeing what links others can find between them. The QQ site doesn't need much selling; those who are susceptible will develop the habit.
Will a name like Quadrivial Quandary be a deterrent to participation? Having spent so much time in my career as a software engineer trying to anticipate the needs of some generalized user whose particular likes and dislikes cannot be predicted, I'm delighted to be focusing with QQ on one niche. I will state unabashedly that QQ is a site for logophiles only. If you love words, we welcome you with open arms. If you don't love words, you're still welcome to gaze in amusement or bewilderment, but don't expect us to hide our flag. If "quadrivial" deters some visitors, so be it.
How did I devise the name? It popped into mind as I was trying to describe a challenge that involves four things -- in this case, four words. Quadrivial means having four ways or roads that meet in a point. In our case, each word is a pathway of thought or meaning, and the quandary lies at their would-be intersection: how to make them come together? Quadrivial can also mean "pertaining to the quadrivium" -- a group of studies undertaken in medieval universities, consisting of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Although this is not the sense I intended, I like the connotations of study. I like imagining the Quadrivial Quandary as my own little curriculum, a sort of education I undertake each day. In that respect, the medieval "trivium" is closer to our purpose -- it's a curriculum of linguistic arts (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) -- and yet I don't much like the name "Trivial Quandary." Although Quadrivial Quandary occurred to me independently, I'm not the first to coin the phrase: it is also the name of a classical guitar etude by composer Andrew York, a study in four voices.
Quandary is a site for logophiles but it is contraindicated for the prim variety. What characterizes this site is exuberance, the joy of using esoteric and sometimes questionable words. You will encounter (and probably produce) many pieces of wreckage. It isn't easy to fit four randomly selected concepts into one sentence. And so QQ includes all forms of linguistic transgression, from run-on sentences, to purple prose, to unintelligible gunk: an overwhelming proportion of creative acts end in failure.
The challenge is intensified by our occasional inclusion of slang words alongside archaic Latinate constructions. How to use words that would never be uttered by the same speaker? With juxtapositions like "mortmain" and "courtesy fart," you can't take your efforts too seriously. I'm often a harsh critic of the writing I encounter (and of much of what I produce), but participating in QQ cultivates tolerance. Just knowing that someone else has confronted the same four-word challenge makes me feel connected to them, as if we've been to the same distant place or witnessed the same uncommon event. How many souls on this planet have struggled with the improbable task of using "Laodicean" in the same sentence as "comstockery," "equivocate," and "keep fucking that chicken?" To attempt it is to enter a kinship with other participants. I like to think of each Quandary as rare mix of flammable substances, combusting in the minds of us who behold it, the shared memory connecting us.
I welcome you to get started. Check the four words of the day and see how you can fit them together! As my yoga teacher is fond of repeating, practice is perfect. More than anything, QQ for me is a wonderful way to practice: using words, solving problems, synthesizing concepts. No matter how tedious my task list, there is always the Quandary to consider. Holding its four words in mind through the day is an intellectual aphrodisiac. When I'm overwhelmed by things mundane, the Quandary is a path back to the world of whimsy and improbability. All the silly fusions that pop into mind are welcome beasts, my friends; it's rejuvenating to join in their antics. What's your sentence?
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