Mom gave me and Laralee a brain-teaser sort of puzzle book for Christmas, and we’ve been going through it tackling the various crosswords, word searches, logic puzzles, sudokus, and other miscellany. They’re great “brain exercises” and give one a real sense of accomplishment when you finally figure out, for example, what fifteen national capitals are listed in the letter grid.

Every page has a little two-line puzzle at the bottom, so after you finish the big crossword or whatever you can take a moment to do a “quickie”. Of course these aren’t always quick, and I’ve found that many of them are actually harder than the “main” puzzle that fills the rest of the page.

Take, for example, the one we were staring at today: what’s the shortest English word that includes the letters APB in a row? The book even gave the helpful hint that it’s seven letters long.

So we puzzled for three hours, until our puzzlers were sore (heh, subtle Dr. Seuss reference there) but couldn’t figure it out. The problem is that puzzles like this– unlike crosswords or sudoku– are completely open-ended. There’s a huge solution space that’s difficult to traverse. Like a riddle, you think and think and either never get it, or suddenly figure it out in a flash and, looking back, realize it was completely obvious.

Being the brilliant and terrifically clever computer geek I am, I figured out that I could dump the contents of my laptop’s spell-checker dictionary and scan for words containing APB. After a few minutes of toying with the software I came up with the command to do what I needed. And I turned up words like clapboard, chapbook (huh?), and scrapbook. And there, at the bottom of the list, was the answer I sought.


Hah! One more puzzle down (with some help from my trusty laptop)…