Summer holidays open the way to all sorts of pastimes. Scrabble is a favourite family game, and it now infests the internet in the form of a game called Words with Friends. It is a seductive little app for the iPad, which looks like Scrabble, but has its bonus squares arranged differently, presumably for patent or copyright reasons.
Having been lured into the torments of both games, I was powerfully reminded of two things. First, Scrabble has nothing to do with an interest in words, any more than Sudoku is about mathematics. Scrabble it is all about tactics and point-scoring; same for Words with Friends.
The second thing is that English has an astounding array of obscure words. Most people with an interest in language know this, but we are rarely reminded of the fact so forcefully as when pitted against a Scrabble opponent whose only objective is to guess their way through every possible permutation of their letters.
Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an American architect, Alfred Butts. Ten years later James Brunot bought the rights to the game in exchange for a royalty on every copy sold. Butts (or his estate) must have done well out of it: about 150 million copies of the game have been sold, and versions of it exist in 29 different languages.
Since the key objective of Scrabble is to get the best score from even the most unpromising letters, the dedicated player naturally resorts to some very odd words. For a person who enjoys words, the only pleasure in this is to discover for the first time some of the weirdest fauna in the jungle of English.
Collins Scrabble Dictionary is the instrument by which this dubious activity is put to the test. It presents itself as authoritative, and conscientiously displays the trademark TM symbol every time it uses the word ScrabbleTM. It contains every word said to be a legitimate Scrabble word, and gives very brief definitions.
So, amorance is defined as the “condition of being in love”. OED 2 does not recognise the word. Neither does Webster’s 3rd edition. The 3rd edition of Webster is the most interesting, but was highly controversial when it was published in 1961 because it moved from prescriptive to descriptive. Earlier editions had declared what words mean; the 3rd edition instead acknowledged the meaning attributed to words by actual people, nodding to the essentially democratic nature of language. From the 3rd edition, Webster accepted that words mean what we agree them to mean.
Apparently the Collins people have taken this process one stage further, to the point of acknowledging words which no one uses, no one recognises and which neither the Oxford nor the Webster has come across. Words however which are a useful expedient for Scrabble fanatics.
Camisa is defined as “a smock”, which actually makes sense (cf French chemise) and is recognised by Webster 3rd, but OED 2 again stands aloof: the nearest hit in OED 2 is camisado, which it defines as “A night attack; originally one in which the attacking party wore shirts over their armour as a means of mutual recognition”, which is obviously connected to camisa, and is quite useful to know, because the added do means an extra three points.
Daud is shown in Collins and also in OED 2 and Webster 3rd. But Collins defines it as “a lump or chunk of something”, whereas OED 2 and Webster 3rd both define it as a dialectical variant of dad. As a father, I was troubled by the thought that I might be described as a lump or chunk. But both OED 2 and Webster 3rd tell you that the dad which can also be rendered as daud is a verb, and means “to shake with knocking or beating”. Neither of my preferred dictionaries acknowledges daud as a noun.
Ervil is defined as “a type of vetch”. Vetch is defined as “a climbing plant with a beanlike fruit used as fodder”. OED2 does not recognise ervil, although its entry for vetch agrees with the Collins. And for devotees of Scrabble, vetchy is also legitimate: “Composed of, abounding in, vetches”.
Whoever uses jeelie, or maungy? Certainly not the compilers of OED 2 or Webster. And who recalls mackle (a blur in printing)? Who knew that an omov is a system of “one person, one vote” (I suppose it was originally the sexist “one man, one vote”)? Only in desperation is it necessary to know that oot is Scottish dialectical for out – not the preposition out, but the obsolete form of ought/aught. And even if you knew that, it is astonishing to learn that the Collins permits an apparent plural: oots. That is odd because it is not a noun, and not even the verb ought with some idiomatic conjugation. It is a misspelling of ort, which is a variant of ord, which is an obsolete word meaning either “beginning”, or “the pointy end of something”. Sadly, the Collins does not take us on this ramble through obsolete Scottish arcana: oots cross-refers to oot, which cross-refers to out, which it defines as “denoting movement or distance away from”: the standard preposition. Now it is true that the Collins confines itself to one volume, so it is necessarily Spartan in its explanations. But its (indirect) definition of oots is not only confusing, it is plainly wrong: I never before met a preposition which took a plural.
Frug is a word I was blissfully innocent of, and likewise fugle. I probably should have known frug: it is a dance which had a brief appearance in the 1960s, but dancing was not really my thing. To fugle is to act the part of the fugleman: “A soldier especially expert and well drilled, formerly placed in front of a regiment or company as an example or model to the others in their exercises”. Clearly useful words, at least for a person playing Scrabble. Nearby, the Collins has fugly. OED 2 recognises this also, and helpfully explains that it was originally Australian military slang and means, as most of us know, “a very ugly person”. The Collins agrees, but editorializes: “offensive word for very ugly”. Webster 3rd adopts a frosty silence: it does not recognise fugly at all.
Collins makes arch observations about some words, noting several words as “taboo words” but nevertheless allowing them to be played. In this regard, its standards look a little old-fashioned (in contrast to its racy willingness to allow all manner of doubtful words into play). While it defines arsehole (and asshole), bugger and bloody without comment or criticism, it baulks at shit as “taboo”, and likewise a few other easily predictable words. This delicacy extends to forfex, which it defines modestly as “a pair of pincers, esp the terminal appendages of an earwig”. OED 2 is a little less oblique: “A pair of anal organs, which open or shut transversely, and cross each other”. While both the entomological and etymological enlightenment is interesting, for a Scrabble player it is a terrific word because F is worth 4 points and X is worth 8 points.
And this is the problem with Scrabble: it is all too easy to lose interest in what the words mean and become concerned principally with their value. A player interested in words will strive to recognise available words in the tiles on their rack, and feel pleased to discover outside (8) or aunties (7) or suited (7) in their jumble of letters. How disappointing then that short words like zax (19 – variant of sax: a tool for cutting slates) or coxy (16 – variant of cocksy: self-important, saucy) or zoa (12 – plural of zoon: an organism scientifically regarded as a complete animal) or oyez (16; at least we all know that one) are worth much more than the cleverly selected words. And when the skilled player manages to place high value letters on a double- or triple- letter square, the difference is magnified.
I plan to avoid the lure of Scrabble this Summer. I no longer want to spend idle time being seduced into a frenzy of debasing the language by trying to maximise the score. Too soon, and not surprisingly, the score for each word becomes the object of the game.
Scrabble is not a game for people keen on words: it is a game for people keen on winning. That is probably why so many lawyers love it. But don’t play it with the 20 volume Oxford at your elbow: it is far too limited.
[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]