A game that trains your writing brain: fictionary

If you are spending time with family over the holidays, as I am, here’s an idea for something fun to do together (that won’t generate political arguments). It’s a game that requires nothing more than a dictionary, some slips of paper, and a desire to play with words, meanings, and people’s minds and prejudices. We call it fictionary (no, not Pictionary, fictionary). And the variant we just figured out, with some unusual reference books, stretches your brain even more.

To play fictionary, you need an unabridged dictionary or some other source of words that most people don’t know (more on that later) and at least five adults, teenagers, or verbally precocious children. Then do the following:

  • Distribute slips of paper to all participants.
  • Designate one person the chooser.
  • The chooser selects, announces, and spells a word from the dictionary that they believe no one present will know the meaning of.
  • If anyone else knows the meaning of the word, they must say so (this is on the honor system), and then the chooser must pick a new word. This continues until the chooser has chosen a word that is sufficiently obscure that no one knows it. (English is so full of obscure words that this part is typically pretty easy.)
  • Now all the other participants write fake definitions for the word on their slips of paper and hand them to the chooser. The chooser reviews each slip and ensures that they can read and understand what’s written. (If not, the chooser can ask the person to rewrite the fake definition more clearly.)
  • The chooser writes a brief version of the true definition.
  • Once all the slips are handed in, the chooser reads each definition aloud to the group, including the correct definition and all the fake ones. This works best if the chooser tries to “sell” all the definitions as accurate; giggling or stumbling over words is a dead giveaway. Typically, it helps to read them all aloud a second time as well.
  • Finally, the chooser reads the definitions out loud a final time, pausing after each one. Each player must vote, publicly when they hear the definition they believe is correct.
  • Once the voting is done, tally scores as follows: you get one point if you guess the correct definition, and one point for each other person who votes for your fake definition. The way we play, the chooser also gets one point for each person who guesses votes for an incorrect definition.
  • With the turn completed, the person to the chooser’s left becomes the new chooser, you repeat all the steps again.

A complete round is a series of turns in which each person has been chooser once. The game consists of one or two complete rounds. Whoever has the most points at the end of the last complete round wins.

Why fictionary is great practice for writers (with examples)

You might think this is a great way to improve your vocabulary; it isn’t. The words you play in this game (like moxibustion or dastur) don’t belong in your writing, because they’re obscure.

However, making up fake definitions is a fascinating way to change the way you think. You free your brain to make associations with audible and linguistic elements, then attempt to figure out what that combination of sounds and word roots might mean — or what your friends and family might be convinced that it means. You also get used to writing simple but convincing definitions.

Asking “what does this nonsense actually mean” is what I do on this blog, every time I read a confusing and misleading public statement from a company or politician. It’s how I train my mind to create clarity in writing, which is probably why I find fictionary so diverting. My family also tend to be word lovers and thinkers, but it’s fascinating to me to see how this game reveals their prejudices and assumptions about words and each other.

Here are some examples: which definition would you choose? (Answers below)


A small piece of plastic used to move parts into alignment.
To oscillate irregularly.
A dirty beige color.
The cork used to plug a bunghole.
To apply pinetar to a cricket bat.



The shell of a diatom.
A small scrap of paper tossed aside by a writer.
An ice crystal.
One of a group of disgruntled protestors.
A wasted vote.

Variant dictionaries can stretch your brain further

An unabridged dictionary works fine for this, but you have to search a little harder to find words that are not obscure animals, plants, or monetary units. The longer words seem to give things away a little with their Greek and Latinate roots, prefixes, and suffixes, creating an advantage to more classically educated players.

But we recently discovered how to revitalized this game and make it more evenhanded — by using alternate dictionaries, which I collect. Here are some strangeand wonderful dictionaries and some words that you’ll find in them.

The Joys of Yiddish, by Leo Rosten

This is the most amusing dictionary you’ll ever read, full of jokes and stories. You’ll also find out if “gebentsht” mean blessed, spicy, or injured, and if a “shaytl” is a wig, a toy, or the thing your dog leaves behind on his walks, Older jews and people who understand German are more likely to win at this, but there are plenty of Yiddish words that you probably don’t know unless you started life in the Polish ghetto.

The Dictionary of American Slang, edited by Robert L. Chapman

Is a “Milwaukee goiter” the puffed out cheeks of a trumpeter or a beer belly? Does “horseshit and gunsmoke” refer to public relations or war? Obviously, this dictionary is only appropriate for an over-18 crowd with no bluenoses. It’s cool to see words in my older edition of this work that have become standard; the term “mouse,” as a computer pointing device, was at one time obscure technical slang.

Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, by Josafa Heifetz Byrne

Another great read for the lexophile. Does “furfuraceous” mean covered with dandruff or does it refer to an animal that sheds its warm coat in summer? Does “hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian” refer to many-legged creatures, massive monsters, or long words? A few minutes with this dictionary and you’ll be full of words you should never use in clear writing. If you use this for fictionary, the Greek and Latin scholars will have an edge.

Visual Dictionary by Jean Claude Corbeil

This unusual reference work shows pictures with labels instead of organizing things alphabetically. It’s where you learn if a “lunule” is part of a seashell or a spaceship, and whether a briefelette is legal term or part of a woman’s underwear.

The answers

Because you want me to do the work for you:

  • Moxibustion is burning herbs in acupuncture.
  • A dastur is a Zoroastrian priest.
  • To squeg is to oscillate irregularly.
  • A frustule is the shell of a diatom.
  • Gebentsht means blessed.
  • A shaytl is a wig.
  • A Milwaukee goiter is a beer belly.
  • Horshit and gunsmoke is the fog of war.
  • Furfuraceous means dandruff-covered.
  • Hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian is a word that describes long words such as hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian.
  • A lunule is part of seashell.
  • A briefelette is part of a woman’s undergarment.

Enjoy your time off.

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  1. Nice post, Josh! It’s nice to read praise for one of my favorite games!

    A variant on Fictionary that makes it more fun for me:

    In addition to a serious attempt at a plausible definition, each player may also submit additional, non-serious “definitions”. E.g., for moxibustion, “spontaneous combustion of the bra, after consuming too many sugared beverages”.

    The fun comes in subsequent rounds, when other spurious definitions refer to earlier ones. So, in the round after “moxibustion,” a definition for “squeg” might be “the noise made by a burning bra.”

    In other words, the most fun for me is in the development of running jokes from one round to another.

    By the way, there are other variants on the “fictionary” idea that use factual connections other than words and their definitions. For example, in one game (can’t remember its name), the chooser picks a random novel from a bookshelf and reads aloud the first line. Then each player writes their idea of the last line from the same novel. Guessing and scoring proceeds as in Fictionary.

    In this case, too, multiple and spurious answers add to the fun – at least for lovers of silliness, like me.

  2. You should pretty much always number bullet points–it makes it much easier to refer back to a point. And secondly, it’s horrible reading to read a list of 10 bullet points. Incorporate them into writing which is hopefully fun to read.