I recently downsized and moved into an active-living facility that offers all sorts of amenities, including an indoor pool, a high-quality restaurant, entertainment, and activities and games that keep our minds alert. A game called Word in a Word that showed up on the list of activities intrigued me, because I love words. When the time came, I went to the room where it was to be played to see how it worked.
A staff member stood in the front of a room called the library. It featured a grand piano and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves loaded with books alphabetized by the last names of the authors. Several tables featured boards for playing backgammon, checkers, or chess.
The staffer set up a whiteboard in front of a dozen or so of us who sat in comfortable chairs and sofas. With a black erasable marker she wrote a fourteen-letter word on the board, and participants eagerly called out other words they could make using the letters in that word.
The staffer wrote down each suggestion participants called out, and participants did their best to avoid calling out any duplicates. The game went on and on, with people calling out words they could make from the letters in the main word. I bit my lip and watched in amazement, intentionally mute and awkwardly uncomfortable. I knew something no one else in that room knew, and I dared not say it. I kept looking around the room, hoping someone else would point out the obvious, but no one did.
After about ten minutes of hard work, no one could come up with anything new, so the staffer counted up the words she’d written below the main word on the board. “One hundred sixty,” she announced with pride. “We came up with one hundred sixty words from this one word. Does anyone have anything else to add?”
I couldn’t help myself. “Yes,” I blurted, “but no one is going to like this.”
“What?” asked the staffer.
“That main word—nutritionalist—isn’t a word.”
“I’m an editor,” I feebly explained, “and that word isn’t a word. The correct word is nutritionist.”
Flustered, the staffer stammered, “It’s a word. I know it is. I got it off the internet.” She picked up her phone and punched in something, apparently looking up her word choice.
All the other residents looked at each other and at me, mumbling their opinions. Some pulled out their own phones or iPads and scrolled or typed in letters.
I waited, shifting in my seat and feeling conspicuous.
For a few excruciating minutes all I heard were the clicks of people looking up the word nutritionalist, the word from which they made 160 other words. Nobody spoke. No matter how much research anyone in the room did, no one could defend the word.
Finally, after a long silence and without making any further comment, the staffer grabbed an eraser, erased the non-word and all 160 words written below it, and wrote another long word, this time a legitimate one. Joy took over the room again and people called out words they could make with those letters.
Feeling sheepish, I sat silently for the rest of the game. I felt invisible, though my face probably glowed bright red. When the game ended, people stood and chatted among themselves. No one acknowledged my presence. No one welcomed me to the group. I slinked out like the guilty person that I was, the know-it-all, the uppity person who dared to challenge a staffer and a room full of people who never noticed that nutritionalist was not a word.
Such is the curse of being an editor.
After a few weeks, though, I could laugh at the incident, plus I made friends with several the folks who witnessed the embarrassing incident.