The dictionary game: for learning and entertainment

The dictionary game is an entertaining board game and it costs nothing. That is, if you already have a dictionary, sheets of paper that are blank on at least one side, and a number of pens / pencils, so that everyone has a sheet of paper and something to write with.

I’ve played it with between six and eighteen people. You play individually, and it may be less important who wins, than about having fun.

The game is simple. You take a dictionary from your bookshelf in a language that everyone knows, or a language that no one knows, but then it should be a bilingual dictionary, preferably in both directions. It is usually played with a (not too elementary) monolingual dictionary. All participants have a pen to write with and a sheet of paper. One person has the dictionary.

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The person who has the dictionary is different, each round. Who this is, changes each round, for example to the person to the right of the dictionary holder, or to the winner of the previous round.

How to play? The dictionary holder looks up a word that they suspect no one else knows. For example, “pawk” or “demolish”. The dictionary holder reads the word aloud, but does not say what it means. The dictionary holder writes down the meaning of the word, roughly as it is found in the dictionary, on their sheet of paper. All the others do not know the correct meaning of the word, but they write the word and then an alternative meaning. Maybe something funny, maybe a meaning that sounds likely, or if someone happens to know the meaning, the correct description. In all cases, the meaning is formulated as it might be found in a dictionary.

The dictionary holder then collects all the sheets from the players, with the suggested meanings. The dictionary manager shuffles all the sheets, including the one with the correct meaning, and then the dictionary manager reads them one by one:

“A pawk is: an unpleasant guest”.

“A pawk is: an apprentice forester who primarily deals with shrubbery”.

“A pawk is: (vulgar language among homosexuals): young man with penis erectus”.

“A pawk is: a higher-lying, dry area in a marsh area.”

“A pawk is a small lobster (borrowed from Burmese).”

“A pawk is: (soldier slang): a newly arrived recruit in the Navy.”

And so on. To refresh the memory and to be able to vote, the dictionary owner reads all the meanings aloud again, perhaps in abbreviated form. Then all players, except the dictionary owner, votes for the best / funniest / most likely answer, by saying out loud which answer they choose.

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Could this person be a pawk?

Then follows the scoring. If your suggested meaning is chosen by someone, you get a point. The dictionary holder then reveals which meaning is the correct one. If you have guessed the correct meaning, from the dictionary, you also get a point. The players themselves keep track of their own score, or a designated person keeps the score for everyone. The game continues this way, each round with a new dictionary holder, until everyone has had a turn, or until the players have had enough. The one with the most points wins. There may even be a prize to be won.

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This was the monolingual version of the game, it can also be played with a bilingual dictionary, which is particularly suitable for international groups. We recently played with the dictionary “Latvian-French”. Everyone in the company could speak French and no one could speak Latvian. The dictionary owner looks up a word, for example “bikses”, and everyone writes a possible meaning in French or in another agreed language. Other than that, the game is the same as in the language version.

What is a pawk and what is a Latvian bikses? Look it up for yourself and be amazed!

Have fun with the game! Let us know how it was in the comments.


Peter Bakker teaches linguistics at Aarhus University. He also likes to play board games from time to time.

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