Word Ladders (Lewis Carroll's Doublets)

What are Word Ladders?

Word Ladders, or Doublets, are a word game or puzzle invented by Lewis Carroll involving a pair of, usually related, words. Lewis Carroll suggested the words should be “English words, such as might be used in good society”. What words you include depends on how prescriptive you want to be - I suggest using a good dictionary, however for a wider range of possibilities you might include anything in the “Official Scrabble Words” dictionary. In some cases you might want to include the names of places or famous people. Anyway, the aim is to start with one word, then change one letter at a time to eventually get to the paired word. An easy example is CAT and DOG, which can be completed as follows:

CAT
HAT
HOT
HOG
DOG

Obviously both paired words need to have the same number of letters. Three letter word ladders are usually quite easy (though some present more of a challenge - try APE to MAN). Four letter words are a bit harder, here are a small selection for you to try:

EAST to WEST
WOOD to COAL
WIND to RAIN
POOR to RICH

but five letter word ladders are considered the real challenge. Try some of these:

BLACK to WHITE
WHEAT to BREAD (for a bigger challenge, try WHEAT -> FLOUR -> BREAD)
NORTH to SOUTH
SHARP to BLUNT

Six letter word ladders are extremely different, and most word pairings will not be possible, hence why five letter word ladders are the most popular. If you like a real challenge you could try to find some six letter ladders, but they are rare, and getting a linked pair of words into a word ladder is even harder, and usually share one or two common letters to make it easier (FASTER to SLOWER for instance).

Word Ladder Puzzles

A slight variant on word ladders it to specify how many steps there are and to provide a clue to each rung on the ladder. The following is a five letter example:

  1. Another word for wealthy
  2. A large stack of hay or straw
  3. A large stone
  4. A small item of clothing
  5. An open air marketplace in certain countries
  6. How lemon juice tastes
  7. Decant from a jug
  8. Somewhat impoverished

Multi-player Word Ladder Game

You can even play word ladders as a game with several players. Choose a word pairing (or sequence of several links like the Wheat > Flour > Bread example above). For a single pairing, count up the letters in both words, and that is the maximum score for that round, so for a simple five letter word ladder, the maximum score would be ten points. If rather than a pair of words there are three words, the maximum score is 20 points (which at first seems strange but is actually logical - Wheat > Flour is 10 points, Flour to Bread is another 10 points). The person(s) with the lowest number of words in their chain scores the maximum points, the other players get 1 point deducted for each additional word in their chain.

There’s a lot of fun potential in playing word ladders, and it will be by turns delightful and infuriating. When you’ve tried the examples in this article, think up some of your own. Be aware that while all the examples I’ve given are possible with standard dictionary words, you will often come across word pairings (multiple word links) which are impossible. Don’t be disheartened, just move on to another one. If you've got any good word ladders you've found, or great solutions to example puzzles, do post in the comments section.

Other word games

If you enjoyed this article then you may be interested in reading about acrostics and double acrostics.

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