Friday, December 25, 2015

Answers to Holiday Challenge

Using all lowercase letters, and using Times New Roman ten-point font with no special formatting...
  • What is the widest seven-letter word you can type?
  • What is the narrowest seven-letter word you can type?
  • Find a four-letter word that is wider than some seven-letter word.

Thanks for sending in so many great answers! As for myself, I sat out the challenge this year—though I did program a computer to try it. Most of the computer's attempts agreed with readers' entries, with some notable exceptions.

I measured candidate words by typing them into Adobe Illustrator and then viewing the type objects at maximum magnification. So without further ado...


The semitransparent blue bars are positioned in such a way that they bookend mugwump. So mommuck just barely pokes into the blue region, and hammaum falls just barely short of it.

These words were familiar to me with the exception of mommuck, which doesn't appear in any of my dictionaries. In Okracoke Island dialect, it means to harass: see this Baltimore Sun article. The widest standard word, mugwump, means a fence-sitter in politics, or a self-important leader. This word also has an interesting history. Hammaum is an archaic alternate spelling of hammam (Turkish bath).

As a reader observed via email, it would have been nice thematically if maximum or mammoth had turned out to be widest!

A couple of tongue-in-cheek responses that I received were mammony, an invented word that means wealthy (its width lies between that of mommuck and that of mugwump) and memmove, a Unix command (between hammaum and whammed).


(Some of these words might be equally wide...I couldn't always distinguish them using the methods I was using.)

Give the computer credit for titlist—I'm a little surprised that no reader submitted this word. The reader favorite instead was illicit. (Maybe the golf ball brand TITLEIST has elbowed titlist out of our collective brains?)

Some of these words are really jargon: my dictionary tells me that illitic is the adjectival form of illite, a kind of mineral clay, and tillite is a stone made of consolidated till. And littlie is a slang term or colloquialism for a small child (chiefly British?).

Interestingly, illitic and illicit are anagrams, yet they differ in width. It seems illicit pays a price for ending with t, because the letterform for t has a little tail sticking out. Evidently, the problem of extremizing word width doesn't reduce to the consideration of individual letter widths. This must have something to do with the way lines of type are assembled. Thinking that it might to be so, I wrote my computer program holistically at the word level: the computer first renders a given word as a vector graphic, then rasterizes the graphic, next discards white pixels, and finally computes the difference between the maximum and minimum column indices among the remaining pixels. This difference is the approximate width of the word.

Four-letter words wider than some seven-letter words

Readers supplied a number of answers to this question. One interesting case is work: it is wider than titlist, but by such a small margin that it might be a candidate for the narrowest four-letter word that is wider than some seven-letter word.

One could ask additional questions along these lines. Is there a three-letter word that is wider than some seven-letter word? (My kids think so...when I put the question to them, they said, 'How about mmm?' As in, 'yummy!' We didn't find mmm in any of our dictionaries, but maybe it's an interjection?) Is there a four-letter word that is wider than some eight-letter word? How about a six-letter word that is wider than some 11-letter word?

Last but not least!

This year's prize, a copy of Word Games 4, goes to reader Melissa. Enjoy the puzzles in this year's volume! And a big thanks to everybody who tried the Holiday Challenge. My best wishes to you for a happy and healthy 2016.

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