What do sandwich, soda, music, and med have in common?

I love words. Language is so particular, so personal, so versatile; there are all these word rules we need to follow, but so many reasons to break them. The fact that my life’s work is deeply connected with words is a constant source of joy.

So it’s no surprise that I’m addicted to the New York Times “Connections” puzzle, in which the object is to group 16 words into four groups of four. A group always has some commonality, but that commonality might have to do with the word’s meaning, how the word might be used in a specific context, the sound of the word, its spelling, or just about any other quality that words have. This means that for any given word in the puzzle, there might be different meanings, pronunciations, or contexts that would connect the word differently to other words. In other words, you must free your mind and seek unsuspected links, eschewing the obvious first impression.

The May 11 puzzle looked like this:

Since the puzzle changes every day, it’s no spoiler for me to talk about Saturday’s puzzle now. Yes, silver and lead go together, as do onion and garlic, but sometimes these obvious connections lead you astray — because you need four things that match, not two.

The clearest connection here is headliner/principal/star/lead (pronounced to rhyme with bead). Can you spot any others?

Perhaps you can figure out what garlic, a cross, silver, and the sun have in common . . . if you happen to be in a vampire movie.

Or, if you are a magazine reader of a certain age, what Cracked, Mad, [The] Onion, and [National] Lampoon share.

One characteristic of the puzzle is that after you’ve successfully connected three groups of four, the remaining four words must go together by a process of elimination. But often such leftover groups are still puzzling.

In this case, you’re left with sandwich, soda, music, and med. Huh?

A deeper connection

What these words share is that they all can follow “club.” That didn’t make immediate sense to the word-interpreting part of my brain. The club in the food items “club sandwich” and “club soda” doesn’t connect in the same part of my brain as Club Med, or club music. Club Med is a club. Club music is music that’s played in nightclubs. But what’s the meaning of the club in club sandwich and club soda?

Some people think a club sandwich is an acronym for “chicken and lettuce under bacon.” But in fact, a club sandwich was originally popularly known as a clubhouse sandwich. People from Saratoga Springs, New York insist that it was popularized at the Saratoga Club House, now known as the Canfield Casino, in 1894, but there’s evidence that a club sandwich was served before that at the Union Club on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1889.

As for club soda, it was produced by Cantrell & Cochrane of Dublin, Ireland in 1877 and named for Dublin’s Kindare Street Club. The name “club soda” was trademarked, but the producers were unable to enforce the trademark, so it came to represent seltzer in general.

So in fact, club soda, club sandwiches, club music, and Club Med are all named after places that were clubs. The phrases do have the same origin. After more than a hundred years, we’ve just lost the context to understand which clubs the foods were named after.

AI should be good at Connections. It isn’t, yet.

As I attempt the Connections puzzle, I often think, “This is exactly the kind of thing that AI should be good at.” After all, AI is good at spotting diverse types of patterns.

So I tested the last part of this puzzle with ChatGPT. I asked it what med, soda, sandwich, and music have in common.

Its guess was wildly off-target (my prompt is shown in italic):

What do these words have in common: med, soda, sandwich, music?

The words “med,” “soda,” “sandwich,” and “music” all have connections to popular abbreviations or shortened forms:

  1. Med – Often used as an abbreviation for “medicine” or “medical.”
  2. Soda – Commonly used as a shortened form for “soda pop,” referring to soft drinks.
  3. Sandwich – Not typically abbreviated, but it’s a common and recognizable word in everyday language.
  4. Music – Sometimes informally abbreviated as “mus.”

Each of these words is integral to everyday language and is frequently encountered in various contexts. They also all represent common, everyday concepts or items that are widely recognized and understood.

“Mus?” Really? This is a terrible guess, a desperate stab that no human would try. I gave it another chance:

Try again. What is another thing these words have in common?

Another commonality among the words “med,” “soda,” “sandwich,” and “music” is that they can all be connected to specific types of shops or establishments where their related products or services are offered:

  1. Med – Pharmacies or medical clinics.
  2. Soda – Soda shops or convenience stores.
  3. Sandwich – Delis or sandwich shops.
  4. Music – Music stores or record shops.

Each of these words can be associated with a specific type of business where the related item or service is the main focus.

Pretty wrong. Or is it?

Are medical clinics clubs for medicine, soda shops clubs for soda, sandwich shops clubs for sandwiches, and music stores clubs for music? That’s quite a stretch.

Even if I hand ChatGPT the answer, it’s still fails:

Can you connect all of these words to the word “club”?

Yes, the word “club” can connect to “med,” “soda,” “sandwich,” and “music” through different contexts:

  1. Med – This could refer to a health club or a wellness club, where “med” (medicine or medical) services or themes might be central.
  2. Soda – A soda club can refer to a type of club where different sodas are featured or sampled, possibly a theme for gatherings or events.
  3. Sandwich – A sandwich club can be a club where members meet to try different types of sandwiches or a term for a type of layered sandwich itself (like a “club sandwich”).
  4. Music – Music club is straightforward, referring to a group that appreciates music, a venue that features live music, or a club where music is the main element of the ambiance.

All these words relate to “club” as a concept that brings people together around a common interest or theme.

Ah, yes, let’s go get our meds at the health club, our sodas at the soda club, and our sandwiches at the sandwich club, where, coincidentally, they serve club sandwiches.

There’s something in our brains that looks all these words and says “Ah yes, club ____,” while AI machines using vast computing resources just for pattern matching still have to make things up.

This is reassuring. The fulfillment I find in doing these puzzles is real. And apparently, I’m not just doing a task the machine could do faster, like finding the best Scrabble word or long division.

The part of my brain trained for 60+ years of listening to, interpreting, and understanding language apparently knows how to do something machines can’t do.

For now, anyway.

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2 Comments

  1. Loved it! As a translator, words are my bread and butter. Fortunately, it’s bread and butter that I love.

  2. My wife and I solve Connections together. We solved the May 11 puzzle, but some answers leave us scratching our heads or require specific cultural knowledge; if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.

    On March 6, the Atlantic ran an article by Ian Bogost about the love/hate relationship that readers have with Connections. This part rang true for me: “Many people take great pleasure from Connections. I do not. If Wordle makes me feel smart, Connections makes me feel stupid. It’s a Guess what I’m thinking puzzle, except you, the player, don’t know anything about the mind whose thoughts you are guessing.”

    Here’s a gift link to Bogost’s article, which is titled, “The New York Times’ New Game is Genius.” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2024/03/strands-word-search-game/677656/?gift=K52KM4-Q0gyhKyU1aqKtapuY5CbV18zHLW_xNWNbAJI&utm_source=copy-link&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share