50 Years of Filling in the Blanks

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The op-ed page of today's New York Times celebrates a notable anniversary, in a piece (with title as above) by Leonard Stern, Holly Gressley and Annemieke Beemster Leverenz that begins:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Mad Libs, the _____ word game that the late Roger Price and I [Stern] accidentally created in 1958.

Under the blank is the label ADJECTIVE, indicating that you're supposed to fill in an adjective; you can fill in a predictable adjective, like wonderful or entertaining, or you can try for something fanciful. Or you can ask someone to supply the words without the context of the passage they're going to be slotted into, and enjoy the bizarre results.

The piece goes on to survey notable events of the past 50 years, with plenty of further blanks for you to fill in. Here's a Candorville cartoon from May (hat tip to Ned Deily) that exploits the format for a bit of social commentary:

Mad Libs picks out the words to be filled in mostly by syntactic category, drawing on the major "parts of speech" Noun, Adjective, Verb, Adverb, sometimes with further specification of form (Plural Noun, Verb Ending in "ing") — that is, it assumes some rudimentary knowledge of grammatical concepts and terminology — but occasionally picks the words out by semantic domain (Part of the Body, Occupation), or, in the case of the cartoon, by a combination of syntactic and semantic specification (Disgusting Verb, Disgusting Noun).

In the NYT piece, a fair number of the words to be filled in are completely determined by the context, in various ways: "for better or [Adjective]", "the Guggenheim [Noun] in New York City… opened its [Plural Noun] to the public", Rowling's novel "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's [Noun]", the movie "Star Wars" "opened to rave [Plural Noun]", "the fall of the Berlin [Noun]", and so on. These items turn on one kind of linguistic knowledge, of idioms and clichés in particular, and on a wide variety of knowledge about the world, culture, and so on.


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