What do Count Basie, Alice Munro, Rosalind Russell and Father Coughlin all have in common? What about cauliflower, “Dueling Banjos” and cadmium yellow?
The answer has nothing to do with politics, culture or vegetables. Instead, think spelling. What joins these names, words and phrases—and many others like them—is that each of them contains each of the five vowels exactly once (Y doesn’t count).
Eric Chaikin, who has spent decades collecting these lexical gems, calls them “supervocalics,” a term that is nicely self-exemplifying. And the hunt for them has the potential to become a little bit obsessive, as the recent surge of activity in a Facebook group dedicated to supervocalics demonstrates only too plainly.
For those with a taste for such things (and who better than crossword aficionados?), the search for supervocalics offers a perfect balance of ease and reward. Once your brain becomes attuned to this wavelength, you start to see supervocalics everywhere. Organic butter! Musical comedy! Platinum blonde! Word freaks get a little tickle of the cerebral pleasure centers at each of these.
As with any sort of wordplay, some of these are classics. “Sequoia,” for example, is generally considered the shortest supervocalic in common English. “Abstemious” and “facetious” have the extra delightful attribute of having their vowels in alphabetical order, along with “trade discount” and “watering trough.” And new ones come on the scene all the time. Justine Sacco, the PR exec who lost her job in December over a remarkably maladroit tweet, had her fifteen minutes of fame—which was just long enough to be added to the supervocalic roll. The headlines “Jay Leno Quits” and “Jimmy Fallon Debuts” also got their due recently.
Chaikin, the godfather of this pastime, outlined some of the basics in a 2000 article for the quarterly magazine Word Ways, and more recently undertook a comprehensive search for supervocalic celebrities. But there’s plenty of unexplored territory here—in fact, once you start seeing these, it’s hard to stop!
Share your own supervocalics here, along with contributions to this week’s cluing challenge: HOUSEMAID. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.
And here are four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.