One of the most popular children’s word games, Hangman, has been played since Victorian times. Though the motif of the gallows and the hanging man are thought by many adults to be inappropriate, due to the imagery’s inherent brutality, it is precisely this brutality that both appeals to children and has kept the game popular over the years.
Many attempts have been made to sanitise the game by replacing the gallows and the hanging man with less violent images. One such example is that of apples falling from a tree, but falling apples lack the merciless appeal that the gallows holds for many children.
For teachers, Hangman is often used in the classroom to practice spelling, revise vocabulary, or simply to amuse the students at the end of a class. There are various ways of playing the game, but the most typical is to draw a gallows on a piece of paper or on the blackboard and then invite the player to guess the letters in the unknown word. Each incorrect guess sees a part of the hanged man added to the picture. The head is the first to be added followed by the body, the legs and the arms. If the picture is completed before the word is guessed, the game is lost and the figure is hanged.
The number of possible wrong guesses is determined by how many parts of the figure must be drawn to complete the picture. Children often insist that the eyes, nose and mouth are included in the drawing, and sometimes even the ears. The typical allowed number of guesses is between eight and ten.
With twenty six letters in the English alphabet, allowing too many guesses virtually guarantees that the player will win. This is particularly true if the player employs strategy. Most children don’t, but for those who do, and for the many adults who also enjoy playing the game, employing a strategy in Hangman vastly increases the chance of winning.
The most commonly used letter in English is the letter e. The other four vowels, a, o, i and u are the third, fourth, fifth and twelfth most commonly used letters. The other most commonly used letters in English, in order of use, are t, n, s, h, r, d and l. By using such letter-frequency lists, a Hangman player can increase their odds of guessing the correct word. Less common words such as rhythm can destroy such strategies of course.
Teachers will normally use only those words that they know their students will be familiar with, or that they want their students to practice. As children’s vocabulary and understanding of letter frequency is much less than that of adults, they are unlikely to use any strategy apart from guessing the six English vowels, a, e, i, o, u and y first, as they know that all English words apart from a few have at least one vowel.
Though developed in the age of pen and paper, Hangman still has a place in the modern world, and many versions can be played with the aid of a computer. Computers and databases make it possible for a Hangman game to have an almost inexhaustible supply of words, and these words can be drawn at random so that the same word is unlikely to be played twice. This makes the game an important way to increase vocabulary.
Another important use of computer-based Hangman games is that they can be primed with particular words sets or lexis. Such lexis can be valuable for the teacher who wants to limit the game content to a list of vocabulary that they want their students to practice. The computer also makes the game more appealing for the player by introducing multimedia elements such as sounds and movement to the game. With the game lexis securely stored on a database the game can be played over and over to recycle the language.
It was the Victorians who first played Hangman with a pencil and paper. Out modern computers would astonish these people of a hundred years ago, but there is no doubt that today’s game would have enthralled them as much as it does today’s children.