10 Classic Word Puzzles to Challenge Your Verbal Brain

... and why we're as much Homo Ludens as we are Homo Sapiens.

Posted Feb 13, 2017

ESB Professional/Shutterstock
Source: ESB Professional/Shutterstock

The variety of word puzzles, many dating back to antiquity, is truly mind-boggling—riddles, anagrams, acrostics, and so on and so forth. Puzzles based on language are truly universal, revealing how the “verbal imagination” works. As a species, we have been dubbed Homo sapiens—the sapient species. But we are as much Homo ludens (the game-player), as cultural theorist Johan Huizinga characterized our species in 1938. Indeed, Huizinga’s argument is that game-playing is a basic characteristic of sapience and essential to human civilization.

It is hard to argue against such a theory, given the invention of so many genres of puzzles throughout human history. Word puzzles in particular have constituted a vast repertoire of mental game-playing activities since the Riddle of the Sphinx—possibly the first documented language puzzle.

In this post, I present 10 “Change-A-Letter” word puzzles, a genre that has been presented under different names at different times in other puzzle collections. In my view, these challenges bring out a fascinating aspect of the verbal brain—its need to connect form and meaning. While this topic is an ancient philosophical one, it is my view that a simple puzzle genre can reveal as much, if not more, than a sophisticated theoretical disquisition.

Let’s do a model puzzle together: Change one letter in a five-letter word that means “frighten” to get a word that means “gaze” or “gape.” (Note that you are not provided the initial word.) The solution? Change the C in SCARE (“frighten”) to T to get STARE (“gaze” or “gape”). That’s all there is to it.

As in previous posts, you might come up with different answers to the ones I have provided. These types of puzzles tend to be open-ended rather than closed, in contrast, for example, to a Sudoku puzzle that has only one solution. I would love to hear from you if you come up with different answers. Have fun!

1. Change one letter in a four-letter word that refers to a “small round mark or stain” to get a colloquial word for “saliva.”

2. Change one letter in a five-letter word that means “to move something from one place to another” to get a word that refers to a delicious dish cooked in “an Indian-style spicy sauce.”

3. Change one letter in a six-letter word meaning “excessive self-adulation” to get a word that means “sound mental health.”

4. Change one letter in a five-letter word referring to a “hand tool” to get a word meaning “oddly amusing.”

5. Change one letter in a five-letter word meaning “supporting structure” to get a word meaning “blaze.”

6. Change one letter in a seven-letter word referring to an “adult male domestic fowl” to get a word meaning “supporter.”

7. Change one letter in a five-letter word meaning “commence” to get a word meaning “bright, clever.”

8. Change one letter in a four-letter word referring to a color to get a word referring to a musical genre.

9. Change one letter in a four-letter word meaning “succor” to get a word meaning “cry sharply.”

10. Change one letter in a five-letter word meaning “chubby” to get a word meaning “feather.”

Answers below ....

1. SPOT—SPIT

2. CARRY—CURRY

3. VANITY—SANITY

4. DRILL—DROLL

5. FRAME—FLAME

6. ROOSTER—BOOSTER

7. START—SMART

8. PINK—PUNK

9. HELP—YELP

10. PLUMP—PLUME