Jewish World Review April 19, 2002 /8 Iyar, 5762

Richard Lederer

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This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect | They're ba-a-a-a-ck -- the readers and listeners who write or e-mail or call or stop me on the street to ask: "There are three words in the English language that end in g-r-y. Two of them are angry and hungry. What is the third?"

The greatest service I can perform for the American people is to announce here that the gry question is one of the most outrageous and time-wasting linguistic hoaxes in our nation's history. The poser slithered onto the American scene on a New York TV quiz show, in early 1975. I've tried to bury gry before, but it keeps rising, like some angry, hungry monstrosity from Tales From the Crypt.

The answer to the infernal question is that there is no answer, at least no satisfactory answer. I advise anybody who happens on the angry+hungry+? poser to stop burning time and to move on to a more productive activity, like counting the number of angels on the head of a pin or waiting for a decrease in our property taxes.

In unabridged dictionaries repose at least 50 gry words in addition to angry and hungry, and every one of them is either a variant spelling, as in augry for augury, begry for beggary, and bewgry for buggery, or ridiculously obscure, as in anhungry, an obsolete synonym for hungry; aggry, a kind of variegated glass bead much in use in the Gold Coast of West Africa; puggry, a Hindu scarf wrapped around the helmet or hat and trailing down the back to keep the hot sun off one's neck; or gry, a medieval unit of measurement equaling one-tenth of a line.

There are those who contend that the solution to the gry poser is right in front of our eyes. All we have to do is focus on the third and fourth sentences in one version of the riddle: "Think of three words ending in gry. Angry and hungry are two of them. There are only three words in the English language. What is the third word? The word is something everyone uses every day. If you have listened carefully, I have already told you what it is." The third word in the English language is, of course, language, which is certainly something we use every day. The whole business about words ending in gry is just a smoke screen.

Nonsense. Humbug. Hogwash. Tripe. Flapdoodle. Folderol. Balderdash. Baloney. This spin on the poser gives linguistic chicanery a bad name.The structure of this statement is rickety, and the English language is not surrounded by quotation marks. The 1975 version of the challenge and those for two decades after do not include the There are three words in the English language sentence. What we have here is a post hoc hoax.

A much more challenging and humane puzzle of this type is "Name a common word, besides tremendous, stupendous, and horrendous, that ends in dous."

At least 32 additional -dous words repose in various dictionaries: apodous, antropodous, blizzardous, cogitabundous, decapodous, frondous, gastropodous, heteropodous, hybridous, iodous, isopodous, jeopardous, lagopodous, lignipodous, molybdous, mucidous, multifidous, nefandous, nodous, octapodous, palladous, paludous, pudendous, repandous, rhodous, sauropodous, staganopodous, tetrapodous, thamphipodous, tylopodous, vanadous, and voudous.

But these are arcane examples. The fourth common word is (and note the alteration in stress) . . . hazardous. Caveat Scriptor: Perpetuating the -gry puzzle can be hazardous to our nation's health. Now that you've read this column, you can spend your time on more useful projects -- like getting ready for the weekend.

JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, Richard Lederer