I don’t play Scrabble much any more, though I’ve always enjoyed it (very amateurishly), so my reaction to the expansion of official vocabulary is muted. My instinct is to resent it (though I do like qin and fiqh), but I recognize that that’s mostly old-fartism at work, and discount accordingly. However, I bring this story about it to your attention for the first sentence: “Scrabble, one of the last bastions of grammatical purism in a world overrun by cell phone text abbreviations, is capitulating to the times.” Grammatical purism? What do people think grammar is, anyway?


  1. “Using language correctly” is, and has long been, one of the things that the word “grammar” means. It can cover spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, what is and isn’t a word, and so on. This is much broader than what linguists call “grammar”.

  2. Dan Milton says

    Just to clarify, this is a revision to the so-called Collins Dictionary list used in most English-speaking countries except the US and Canada. It’s already some 25% larger than the OWL Official Word List used by North American Scrabble players.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    The addition of “qin,” “fiqh,” “za,” etc., has altered the likelihood that a player will be able to score extra points with high-point-value letters like q and z. Yet the high values were originally assigned on the basis of an estimate of the difficulty of using such letters. I’m not immune to alte-fartzerkayt (as I think of it) myself, but the tipping of the scoring probabilities seems to me a more reasonable basis to question the expansion of the official word list.

  4. I like Scrabble, but not “official” Scrabble. A while back I knew people who played to official rules, and I was always running into situations of finding words I knew were perfectly real (for instance, geological terms) weren’t in the pretty arbitrary SOWPODS subset.

  5. My issue isn’t with the use of “grammar”, but with the idea that Scrabble has ever been a bastion of language purism. The official Scrabble dictionary was cobbled together from a bunch of questionable sources. It’s as impure as dictionaries come.

  6. I have always wanted Qyrqyz (the correct spelling of Kirgiz, in some sense of the word “correct”) to be declared an official scrabble word. Apparently proper nouns aren’t allowed, especially from foreign languages, especially in unusual transcriptions. Oh well.

  7. Having read and enjoyed Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, and having searched eBay just last night for the cheapest qin available (about $200 for crap), I’m of mixed feelings on changes like this. An addition to qi and qat on the list of short Q-without-U words massively changes the tactics of the game. Have qin and fiqh really increased in currency in English? Or were they felt to be previous oversights?
    Also, that (awful) article mentions the addition of Facebook and MySpace. How are those not proper nouns?

  8. Have qin and fiqh really increased in currency in English?
    Computer says yes.

  9. pennifer says

    See I was even more confused because I read it as “catapulting to the times.” But yes, I take your main point.

  10. in a world overrun by cell phone text abbreviations
    Not so. Perhaps a cell phone world is overrun by cell phone abbreviations. Perhaps an internet world is overrun by “IIRC” abbreviations (is there a special generic term for these ?). Otherwise, things are just as they always been.
    There’s a well-known poem containing lines something like: “The … is as it’s always been, the … is as it ever was …”. I can’t recover it just now, does anyone else know ?

  11. For I intend to get to God,
       For ‘t is to God I speed so fast,
    For in God’s breast, my own abode,
       Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
       I lay my spirit down at last.
    I lie where I have always lain,
       God smiles as he has always smiled
    Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
       Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
       The heavens, God thought on me his child;
    Ordained a life for me, arrayed
       Its circumstances every one
    To the minutest; ay, God said
       This head this hand should rest upon
       Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.

                                   Browning, Johannes Agricola in Meditation

    Old farts can rest assured, scrabble ain’t gonna change things.

  12. Just for fun, I’ll note that “qin” forms part of one of my favorite chengyu (four-character idioms): 对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín), meaning “to play a lute to a cow.” It’s used in situations where English-speakers might say “to preach to deaf ears” or “to cast pearls before swine.” Try trotting that out at your next Scrabble game.

  13. dearieme says

    I played scrabble once. One of my opponents objected when I came up with “tuxedoing”: “what’s that?” she whined. “Dressing for dinner” I replied. “I don’t accept it” she grumbled “It’s not in the dictionary”. “Would you accept ‘arsehole’?” I enquired. “Yes”. “All right, you’re an arsehole”.

  14. We play Revolutionary Scrabble, where you invent all the words. You have to provide a definition and a reasonable etymology, and there cannot already be another English word with that meaning.

  15. Does the loser get decapitated?

  16. Decapitulated.

  17. Heavens, no. There are only three of us plus the dogs indoors. No, the loser gets re-educated.

  18. You’re referring, I suppose, to that program (part of the Chinese “Cultural Revolution”) to re-educate elites by sending them to work in the fields for several months in the year. It occurred to me once that such a program could seem sensible only to people who themselves are “elitist”.
    The program is asymmetric, in that it does not require farmers to move into elitist positions at all, much less for several months in the year. There is a hidden assumption here that everybody is capable of hoeing a straight line, but not everybody can run a company. This could be described as an “elitist” viewpoint.
    In America, we tried once in a small way to make the re-education procedure fairer by electing a peanut farmer as President. Suppose truckloads of Mr. Smiths – or one Sarah Palin – were shipped to Washington. Would things get better ?

  19. No. Farmers are notoriously conservative, contemptuous of education and they like foxhunting.

  20. mollymooly says

    Wikipedia reveals quite a few schisms in the history of official Scrabble dictionaries.
    When the official UK Scrabble dictionary changed from Chambers to Collins, did all the words in Chambers not in Collins get grandfathered? It’s sad enough that someone might devote years to memorizing a wordlist, without the subsequent strain of trying to unmemorize an arbitrary sublist.

  21. Mark Etherton says

    As so often, Craig Brown says all that needs to be said:

  22. Does anyone know what kind of wood Scrabble tiles are made of? I know if I sawed up little tiny bits of wood like that they’d just crumble away.

  23. It looks like ash.

  24. Looks like ash — smells like ash — tastes like ash. Good thing we didn’t step in it.

  25. “Fiqh” at least I’ve seen a fair number of times in English texts. “Qin” I only know from learning the abovementioned chengyu in Chinese class. I’m sure it’s occasionally used in English text but it seems a little obscure to count it as an English word.

  26. smells like ash
    are you saying what I think you’re saying? funny, last year we had a dead tree cut down before it could fall on the house–didn’t even know it was ash until the tree guy told us–asked him to save us some for firewood–the split logs that I stacked in the garage smell pretty bad

  27. I tell you, MMcM can find anything.

  28. I would just like to take this opportunity to place on the table for your collective response (I’m hoping something like disdain?) a couple of aspects of the rules for Catalan Scrabble: 1. In Catalan the letter Y can only be used following the letter N (sound familiar?) SO IN SCRABBLE THEY PUT THE TWO ON A SINGLE TILE; and 2. ONLY THE INFINITIVE FORM OF A VERB IS ALLOWED. No tenses, persons, or other…
    Consequently, I refuse to play Catalan Scrabble.
    Sorry for using your forum for a rant. Delete me if you like, honoured Hat.

  29. Holy crap. Thanks, M.
    Ø, we have lots of ash where we live, including two trees in our garden (a polled ash tree is the symbol of the county), but I’ve never encountered a smell from the tree or the logs. Are you sure it wasn’t mould*?
    *ORIGIN late Middle English : probably from obsolete mould, past participle of moul [grow moldy,] of Scandinavian origin; compare with Old Norse mygla ‘grow moldy.’

  30. Catanea, how awful for you! I wonder how it is with forms of verbs (nouns, adjectives, …) in other national Scrabbles. By the way, what is your real beef about Y? That loanwords with plain Y are impossible?
    Crown, it doesn’t look mo[u]ldy. And, to be honest, it only smells a little.

  31. Catanea, my Catalan Scrabble dictionary (and I’m pretty sure the game itself, although I’m not near it now) disagrees vigorously about the “only infinitives” rule — it lists all the verb forms, including Valencian, Balearic, etc. versions.

  32. It’s really frustrating playing in Yiddish. No one can agree on what dictionary to use.

  33. Remind me to tell you my story about Scrabble in Germany, the word per, the professor’s lecture notes, and the snooty German dictionary.

  34. Richard Sabey says

    ZA has been valid for Scrabble outside North America since 2007. ZA is slang for “pizza”. AIUI this is an American usage. Maybe, if contributors are to be believed, “no self-respecting person” uses it, but that doesn’t stop dictionary-makers putting it in.
    @rootlesscosmo Q got a lot more playable when QI was added to the word list (QI’s been in for yonks). But believe you me, among the tiles, Q is still by far the worst liability, even though it has the equal highest face value.
    @Jonathon What source dictionaries would you consider acceptable? For North American usage, one of the Merriam-Websters, I suppose, but for usage elsewhere in the Anglosphere?
    @mollymooly Chambers words are still in SOWPODS. Revisions to SOWPODS do sometimes remove words, though.
    @dearieme Sorry, but I’m with your opponent here. One of the beauties of playing to a word list (provided that all players agree to do this) is that it makes it clear what is and is not allowed, and levels the playing-field, so that nobody can bully anyone else into accepting what is not acceptable.
    @Catanea Unlike Castilian Scrabble, Catalan Scrabble doesn’t have a tile for LL. It surprises me, then, that Catalan Scrabble has a tile for ela geminada, rather than letting players use two L tiles.
    @AJP Crown If your Scrabble set has wooden tiles, it must be either very old or a reissue of a retro design.

  35. it must be either very old or a reissue of a retro design.
    Here “very old” appears to mean at least 12 years. I’m guessing Richard Sabey is a young man.

  36. the beauties of playing to a word list
    It’s a matter of personal preference, of course. It may well be that dearieme’s opponent took great pleasure in whining and grumbling and that he took equal pleasure in fuming and name-calling–pleasures that would have been undercut by a cut-and-dried SOWBUGS approach.

  37. Or do I mean clear-cut? What’s the difference between “clear cut” and “cut and dried”? Should they be hyphenated or not? Do these phrases come, respectively, from forestry and haying? If so, how did the idiomatic uses arise?

  38. If your Scrabble set has wooden tiles, it must be either very old or a reissue of a retro design.
    If they’ve gone over to the abomination of plastic tiles in the UK, that’s your problem. In the US, where Hasbro has exclusive rights, wooden tiles are still standard in even the cheapest sets.

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