Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Scrabble Then & Now

Fans add a new word to Scrabble


Howard Richler

It was 1931, the height of the Great Depression, when American architect Alfred Butts joined the bulging ranks of the unemployed. There just weren't many buildings being erected, so Butts decided to construct something else – an adult game.

He called his game Lexico. It was played without a board and players received points based on the lengths of the words formed. One would receive bonus points by using less common letters, such as K or W, and very rare letters, like Q and Z would fetch you even greater points.

How did Butts do his computing in the pre-cyber era? He meticulously checked the frequency of letters on the front pages of the New York Times. He came up with a formula that consisted of 100 letters comprising 12 Es, nine each for the second-most-common letters A and I , and in decreasing frequency for other letters, down to one for, Z,X, Q, K, and J.

In 1938, the popularity of crossword puzzles gave Butts the idea of combining the letters with a playing board in which words could be joined as in crossword puzzles. Over the years, Butts's game was marketed under several other names. They included New Anagrams, Alph, Criss-Cross and Criss Crosswords – and finally the one that stuck in 1948: Scrabble.

Today, Scrabble is distributed in 121 countries and can be played in over twenty language versions. In other languages, the number of tiles of individual letters and the point total depend on lingual differences. For example, if you've ever enjoyed a meal consisting of zupa buraczkowa ( red beetroot soup) with kasza gryczana (buckwheat porridge), you probably won't be surprised to learn that in Polish Scrabble there are five Zs worth one point each. Some years ago I worked at a company of over 100 employees where I was the only person that had a W in his name explaining why W is worth ten points in French Scrabble.

Interestingly, Scrabble highlights differences in the English language or should I say English languages. For in North America, words are drawn from the Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary (OSPD) whereas in most of the rest of the world the official dictionary in SOWPODS. SOWPODS is a marriage of OSPD and OSW (Official Scrabble Words. In days of yore, North America used OSPD and the United Kingdom (UK) et al employed OSW. Then the UK decided to combine the lists and declare all those words acceptable. Since the resulting smorgasbord of titles OSPDOSW or OSWOSPD was a mouthful, the anagram SOWPODS was chosen. In any case the fusion that created SOWPODS leaves players who play under its rule over 80,000 more words than are available under the OSPD rubric.

This is not to say that OSPD has remained frozen. It was first published in 1978 and included words two to eight letters found in five official college dictionaries, and has been updated once or twice each decade. The last update occurred in 2005 adding approximately 4,000 words, such as 'qi,” a term from Chinese philosophy that refers to circulating life energy, the highly dubious “za”; a shortening probably coined by inarticulate pizza inhalers, the equally sketchy “al,” an East Indian tree and “oxid,” a variation of “oxide” were also deemed okay in this update. Incidentally, “ok” was not okay.

Also not okay are a series of words that were expunged from OSPD in the 1990s, such as the word “jew” used as a verb to mean “to haggle.” In toto, 170 words were deleted including “fart,” “jesuit,” “papist” and “redskin.” Many Scrabble players were incensed with this censorship and a compromise was reached: The official dictionary for home and school was censored but the “offensive” words were deemed acceptable for tournament play.

The company that makes Scrabble, Hasbro on March 12th of this year invited enthusiasts to nominate words via its Facebook page. Its announcements stated that thousands of new words will be added to OSPD such as “selfie” and “hashtag.” In an attempt to include the hoi polloi, Hasbro announced that fans had until March 28th to send in their nominations and that sixteen finalists would be unveiled on April 2nd before being narrowed down to a single word which was chosen and April 10th and added to the latest version of OSPD.

The “sweet sixteen” consisted of the following: “adorbs,” “bestie,” “bitcoin,” “booyah,” “emotypo,” “cosplay,” “ew,” “geocache,” “hangry,” “lifehack”, “luckbox,” “nowish,” “phlabet,” “retweet,” “woot,” and “zen.” Most commentators were betting that the eventual winner would be ew or zen but they weren't counting on the lobbying ability of aficianados of one of the words. Shortly after voting commenced, the Geocache.com Twitter feed implored its 56,000 followers: “Should 'geocache' count in Scrabble. Say heck yeah! Comment 'Geocache' on Hasbro's FB page.” Incidentally, geocache is a verb that means to seek items by means of a GPS device as part of a game.”

I was pleased that the interjection “ew” did not win as the official Scrabble rules already allows a plethora of them, such as, “ah,” “aw,” “eh,” “er,” “hm,” “mm,” “oh,” “oi,” “oy,” “sh,” “uh,” and “um.” When I play Scrabble I try to negotiate the the non-use of interjections.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

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