Word Freakout

The latest brouhaha over changes to the Scrabble dictionary.

Is the uproar over new Scrabble words unfounded?

Here we go again, Scrabble fans.

A year ago, the media went bonkers over news that the venerable word game, seeking to spice things up for the youngsters, was permitting the use of proper nouns. It wasn’t true. The reality was that Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, was introducing a spinoff game (again, outside of North America) called Scrabble Trickster. Overzealous corporate flacks misled reporters about what was happening and allowed the Internet wildfire to spread. Any pub is good pub.

Now comes news that Scrabble is admitting 3,000 new words, including slang such as THANG, GRRL, and INNIT; technological terms like WEBZINE and FACEBOOK (as a verb); and u-less words including QIN (a Chinese zither) and FIQH (an expansion of Islamic sharia law). (Scrabblers use uppercase when referring to words in the context of the game.) Seattlest reports that Scrabble “just got a lot more hip, and a little more easy.” The Globe and Mail in Toronto says that “traditionalists” are upset over “the acceptance of slang.” USA Today’s Pop Candy blog informs that “10 new words”—yes, 10—”have been added to the Scrabble dictionary,” using as its source a post on BuzzFeed. Local news anchors are chit-chatting about the changes. Wired advises readers to “print this out and be prepared.”

If you follow that advice in the United States and Canada, you’ll need to be prepared for those words to get challenged off the board. While 3,000 words are indeed being added to a Scrabble lexicon, it’s the lexicon that governs play outside of North America, the Collins English Dictionary. Here in the United States and in Canada, where the game is owned by Hasbro, competitive Scrabble is ruled by a book known as the Official Tournament and Club Word List, or OWL (along with an addendum of 10- to 15-letter words known as the Long List). The over-the-counter source for school and home play, purged of “offensive” words, is The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. The North American lexicons are published by Merriam-Webster.

Scrabble’s bifurcated ownership dates to the 1950s. Its bifurcated word-sourcing dates to the publication of the first Scrabble dictionaries, in 1978 in the United States and 1980 in the United Kingdom. Attempts at world Scrabble lexical unity so far have failed, largely because a majority of North American players has been unwilling to adopt the larger and more permissive British books, of which Collins is just the latest. How much larger? A total of 178,691 words two through 15 letters long are playable in club and tournament Scrabble in North America. Not including the new update, Collins, when combined for competitive play with the North American words in a book called Collins Scrabble Words, yields a total of 267,751 words. (More so-called Collins tournaments are being held in the United States, and an increasing number of expert-level competitive players are choosing to study the British words, but not enough yet to threaten the status quo.)

So Scrabble is more complicated than you might think. An email to the North American Scrabble Players Association, which oversees competitive play, or the National Scrabble Association, which handles school and home play, might have answered questions about the provenance of the new words. (Why are there two groups, you ask? Read the 10th anniversary edition of my book Word Freak, out this summer, to find out!) But people have proprietary feelings toward words and games, even if they don’t understand the distinct rules by which those worlds are governed. So it makes sense that media outlets would quickly seize on the outrageous “news” that you can now play BLINGY in Scrabble, just as they did last year when news spread of the heretical inclusion of proper nouns.

The latest winner of the Alfred Butts-Is-Spinning-in-His-Grave Award for most misinformation in a single article about Scrabble? Salon, for managing to repeat last year’s erroneous news, get the current news wrong, get a correction wrong, and cop an attitude based entirely on false information. “The whole concept of the game went down the crapper” with the inclusion of proper nouns, Salon opined. “Now the game is allowing made-up slang.” Indeed, most of the latest reports focus on the alleged ridiculousness of the new words and the attendant collapse of linguistic and cultural standards. Yahoo: “Scrabble, one of the last bastions of grammatical purism in a world overrun by cell phone text abbreviations, is capitulating to the times.”

But slang words have always been acceptable in Scrabble, because slang words are included in the standard dictionaries used to compile its word sources. And this might be the greatest misconception about Scrabble—that the game subjectively, or even arbitrarily, decides which words to include and which to exclude. In fact, The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary was created from words found in at least one of five standard college dictionaries in print at the time. The latest North American update, the fourth edition, published in 2005, added words from any of four standard college dictionaries. (QI and ZA received the most attention.) The language evolves, lexicographers take note, dictionaries are updated, Scrabble follows.

The next update in these parts is scheduled for 2013. If history is any guide, some of the new British words will also appear in new editions of U.S. dictionaries and, yes, make their way into Scrabble. The media will be shocked and perplexed by the changes. And competitive players will memorize the new words and be thrilled that they have more ways to score.