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8 Word-Based Parlour Games and How to Play Them

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

“Put down the French horn, Humphrey, and let’s play a word game.”

“Put down the French horn, Humphrey, and let’s play a word game.”

These parlour games are exercises for the brain from an earlier era. Perhaps it's naïve to think these games will catch on with a generation that has learned to vapourize entire civilizations with the click of a mouse.

8 Word-Based Parlour Games

  1. London Underground
  2. The Minister’s Cat
  3. Dumb Crambo
  4. Ghosts
  5. Throwing up Lights
  6. Proverbs
  7. The Elephant's Foot Umbrella Stand
  8. Fictionary
London Underground is played using a geographic location, typically a subway system.

London Underground is played using a geographic location, typically a subway system.

1. London Underground

This game originated around London’s tube (subway system), but it can be played using any agreed-upon geographic location.

One player picks the name of a station and then creates a cryptic clue for the other players to unravel. Some examples:

  • 1,760 yards and stop—Mile End
  • H20 for aromatic leaves—Bayswater
  • Burnt BBQ—Blackfriars

New York City

Transporting this game to New York City creates a bit of a problem because so many of the stations are numbers—110th Street, 7th Avenue.

But, there’s always:

  • Wide Thoroughfare—Broadway
  • Ordained Street—Parsons Boulevard

However, Astoria Ditmars Boulevard presents a bit of a challenge.

2. The Minister’s Cat

How good are your adjectives?

Players take it in turn to use an adjective to describe the Minister’s Cat.

An adorable cat. An apricot-colored cat.

An adorable cat. An apricot-colored cat.

The first player starts at the letter A. “An affable cat.” The next player might say “An agreeable cat.” Once everybody has offered an adjective starting with A, the game rotates through the alphabet.

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“A benign cat.” “A chubby cat.” And so on.

You have to hope you don’t follow the person who says “A wise cat.”

For those who crave competition, a time limit per adjective can be introduced. Those that can’t come up with one in, say, three seconds get booted out. Ejection also follows a repetition of an already used adjective.

This game is also known as The Simmonds’s Cat, among other names.

3. Dumb Crambo

This is a reverse game of charades.

Players are divided into two teams—actors and audience. The actors are sent out of the room while the audience picks a word; let’s say “Charm.”

The actors then return and are told the mystery word rhymes with “Farm.” The actors have to guess the correct word by portraying words that rhyme with it. They may start by acting “alarm,” and if the audience is sharp, it will say “No. The word is not alarm.”

The actors get three chances to act the hidden word.

In Ghost, you're trying to spell a legal word but not be the person who completes the word.

In Ghost, you're trying to spell a legal word but not be the person who completes the word.

4. Ghosts

How’s your spelling?

Each player gets five lives. With each life lost, players get one letter in the word “ghost.” The first to spell the word loses.

Player number one starts with a letter. The next must add another letter and try not to make an actual word. However, players must be working to create an actual word.


Anne plays B. George—O. Michael—N. Susan is in a difficult spot. If she plays an E, D, G, K, or Y, she’s made a word and loses a life. But, Susan is smart, so she plays an F. Michael looks at BONF and thinks that’s not going to spell a word and challenges. Susan says she’s working towards BONFIRE. Michael loses a life.

Players can bluff, proposing a seemingly incongruent letter and daring the others to challenge. If there’s no challenge, play continues.

Ghosts are not out of the game; they can’t play letters, but they try to disrupt play by distracting other players. And, if someone who's not a ghost talks to a ghost, he or she immediately becomes a ghost.


There are many variants:

  • In Superghost, letters can be added at the front or back of a string; this was a favourite of James Thurber.
  • Cheddar Gorge follows the same rules as Ghost but uses whole words to construct sentences.

5. Throwing up Lights

Two players leave the room and decide on a word that can have several meanings. They return and start a conversation that gives clues that throw light on what the word is.

If a player thinks he’s figured out what the word is, he says, “I strike a light.”

"I strike a light."

"I strike a light."

He whispers the word to one of the two original players. If he’s right, he joins them in their conversation. If he’s wrong, he has to sit facing the wall until he gets it right.

Here's a sample conversation for the word bark:

“Does it make noises?”
“Only when it sees a squirrel”
“Can I find it in this house?”
“No. But there’s a lot in the forest.”

Sometimes, this game is called Hestia, and a variant is New Hestia in which one person leaves the room while the rest pick a word.

6. Proverbs

In this game, you must guess the phrase or saying.

One person leaves the room while the others decide on a proverb, such as “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

The guesser then asks questions of the other players in turn. The first person must use the first word of the proverb in her or his answer. The second person uses the second word and so on.

For those with a competitive streak, points can be awarded to the guesser who gets the mystery phrase right with the fewest number of words revealed.

7. The Elephant’s Foot Umbrella Stand

In the Victorian era, an umbrella stand made from an elephant’s foot was a common accessory. Why this game should be named after such an object is a mystery. Perhaps, someone can shed some light on the puzzle.

Why would the game be named after this object?

Why would the game be named after this object?

The first person starts off by saying “I went to the store and bought . . . " and then names an object. The leader has already determined a secret rule that the other players must follow without knowing what it is.

Suppose the rule is that the next player must name an object that ends in the letter T, but instead that player says cake. The leader says, “The store has no cake.” But, if the player says she bought a tart, the leader will approve the purchase without saying why.

The other players must recite the list of approved objects before having their own guess. Everybody has to figure out what the rule is by using memory and logic.

The number of rules devised is almost limitless and can be:

  • Something you eat;
  • Has a double letter;
  • Follows the alphabet in reverse order (that’s cruel);
  • Must have five letters.

8. Fictionary

A quizmaster/mistress picks an obscure word out of a dictionary, and players have to write a definition for that word. The quizperson also writes down the correct definition. The answers are shuffled and read out.

Suppose the word is “callypygian.” It might generate the following definitions:

  • A game played in Greece using a goat’s bladder.
  • The flat notes on a steam organ.
  • Having perfectly shaped buttocks.
  • A hardy perennial related to the lillium genus.

One of those answers is correct—so, it's time to play.

Fictionary Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What does the word callypygian mean?
    • A game played in Greece using a goat’s bladder.
    • The flat notes on a steam organ.
    • Having perfectly shaped buttocks.
    • A hardy perennial related to the lillium genus.

Answer Key

  1. Having perfectly shaped buttocks.

The correct answer is given below. No peeking.

Many More Games Exist

There are hundreds of other word-based parlour games. Some have made their way onto digital platforms, but who would rather play an electronic version in anonymity when they can embarrass themselves in public by playing with real people?

Bonus Factoid

Fizz Buzz is a game once played by a certain aging writer in his youth in public houses. Players take turns counting upwards in a rhythm of one number per second. Any number that contains a three or is divisible by three is replaced by “fizz.” Any number that contains a five or is divisible by five is replaced by “buzz.”

If the players get to 15 without an error, then they've got a number that is divisible by three and five and contains a five, so the correct call is “fizz, buzz, buzz.” At this point, the order of play reverses and goes the other way around the table. After the grog has flowed for a while, it’s almost impossible to get past 12. Imagine, if you will, today’s kids who have learned arithmetic through discovery math trying to play this game.

Quiz Answer

The correct answer to the quiz is "having perfectly shaped buttocks."


  • Fun Joint.
  • “Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany.” Ben Schott, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004.
  • “Classic Parlor Games with a Modern Twist.” One King’s Lane, undated.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 16, 2018:

Hello Rupert, very interesting.

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