I have a terrible feeling that the game “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” is an endangered species. Granted, my evidence is strictly anecdotal—several kids I know had never heard of it—but this is nonetheless a cause for serious concern.
It’s not that I was ever so great at the game; on car trips, my heart always sank when anyone identified the category as “mineral” because my knowledge was so scant. And let’s face it, as guessing-games go, it’s a bit of a dud: with none of the urgency of Twenty Questions and none of the glamour of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, poor old Linnaeus can feel like a bore.
But I don’t think the game is in trouble just because it’s slow. The contemporary material world is complicated. Last night, I put myself to sleep going through the various objects in my bedroom and attempting to classify them. It did not go well; several times I had to cheat by looking up the component parts of my humidifier (mineral), the shell of generic ibuprofen (animal) and the filling of my knockoff Tempur-Pedic pillow (surprisingly, vegetal). Short of a degree in inorganic chemistry—or a bylaw prohibiting the inclusion of anything invented after, say, 1950—the game is nearly impossible. “Mineral ascendant,” I scrawled in my notebook.
In the 1950s British game show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (the American version was called What in the World?), scholars attempted each week to identify various objects of historic interest. It’s a really good show—you can find full episodes online—reminiscent of Antiques Roadshow, but without the money. Even by mid-century BBC standards, though, it’s a strikingly unsexy title.
Perhaps the weirdest use of “animal, mineral, vegetable” comes to us via the musical Peter Pan. Peter (as played by Mary Martin) has disguised herself as a woman to somehow entice and distract the campy Captain Hook. Among other bizarre hijinks, they have a brief round of “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral.”
Just when you start to think it was a simpler time, you see something like this. And are reminded that, maybe, it was just weirder.