Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Now Pitching in the World Series: The Man They Call "Scrabble"

In this year's World Series, one name in particular will likely catch the eye of even casual baseball fans. In the late innings of the first two games, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals came in to face the Texas Rangers: Marc Rzepczynski. The announcers were clearly ready for Rzepczynski's appearance and pronounced his name smoothly (as "zep-CHIN-ski"), helpfully explaining that his nickname is "Scrabble." So how does Rzepczynski stack up against other hard-to-spell baseball names?

Rzepczynski has attracted attention for his Scrabble-friendly name ever since he made his major-league debut with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009. As with many other names derived from Polish, the name has strings of consonants that are difficult for most Americans to pronounce and spell. That's true despite the fact that the pronunciation has been Americanized. For instance, the consonant in Polish represented by the letters rz is more of a "zh" sound with the tip of the tongue pulled back a bit. That makes it a retroflex consonant, often represented in Polish spelling with a z-combination: cz, dz, rz, sz. And then those consonants can combine in clusters with yet other consonants. If you want to know what a tongue-twister in Polish looks like, try this on for size (courtesy of the Wikipedia page on Polish phonology): W Szczebrzeszynie chrzÄ…szcz brzmi w trzcinie ("In Szczebrzeszyn a beetle buzzes in the reed"). You can even find YouTube videos devoted to the tongue-twister.

Even after consonant-heavy Polish names get simplified for English speakers, Polish Americans are still used to having people mangle both the pronunciation and spelling of their names. This is especially true in sports, where announcers and others frequently need to identify players by name. Before Rzepczynski, major-league baseball has seen such player names as Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Kluszewski, Mark Lukasiewicz, Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Grudzielanek, and A. J. Pierzynski (the last of whom has joined the announcers' booth for Fox's broadcast of the World Series).

Mientkiewicz, who retired from the majors two seasons ago, also had a nickname poking fun at the spelling of his name: "Eyechart." He wasn't the first ballplayer with the "Eyechart" moniker either; that would be Doug Gwosdz, a catcher who played for the San Diego Padres in the early '80s. (Gwosdz pronounced his name the way a baseball player should: "goosh"!) There's an old joke along these lines:

An immigrant from the old country came through Ellis Island. As part of a physical exam, he was asked to read a line of letters on an eye chart. Pointing to the fourth row (which contained the letters S Z Q W R E K Z I), the doctor asked, "Can you read these letters?" "Read them?!!" The man exclaimed, "I KNOW the man!"

Players of Polish descent don't have a monopoly on names that are hard to pronounce and spell. My favorite surname among active baseball players is Saltalamacchia, as in Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. At 14 letters, Saltalamacchia (which is Italian for "jump over the thicket") is in fact the longest surname in MLB history. For two-name combos, I'm partial to Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and Rangers catcher Yorvit Torrealba. Fortunately, there was a Rzepczynski-Torrealba matchup in Game 2 of the World Series last night.

Word nerds will want to know: does Rzepczynski really deserve the "Scrabble" nickname? If you were allowed to play his name in Scrabble (proper nouns are typically verboten), it would indeed make for an exceptionally high-scoring round. Using the usual point values assigned to letters in Scrabble, RZEPCZYNSKI is worth a whopping 40 points. (You can calculate Scrabble values here.) Only problem is, traditional Scrabble only has one Z tile, so you would need to use a blank (for zero points) to represent the other Z in his name. That takes it down to 30 points. And how would you play it in the game, exactly? Well, if ZEP and SKI (or KI) were already on the board, then you could connect them to spell out the whole name.

Without worrying about the double-Z problem, I know of no player in major-league history who has a surname with a higher Scrabble value than 40. Another two-Z name, VELAZQUEZ (shared by MLB-ers Carlos, Freddie, and Gil) comes close with 39 points. If you consider first and last names together, though, MARC RZEPCZYNSKI (48 points) is outdone by another active player: JAVIER VAZQUEZ (53 points), a pitcher currently with the Florida Marlins.

And if we look at athletes' names beyond baseball, we can find even more impressive Scrabble scores. For instance, the National Football Hall of Fame includes Alex Wojciechowicz, who played for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles in the '30s and '40s. WOJCIECHOWICZ is worth 44 points, and if you throw ALEX in you're up to 55. If that name looks familiar to you, you're probably a fan of the '70s police sitcom "Barney Miller," which had a character whose last name was Wojciehowicz, missing a C. One of the producers of the show was a fan of the football player and named the character in his honor. (On the show, the deadpan Detective Wojciehowicz would explain over the phone that his name is spelled "just like it sounds.")

Poland, of course, has us beat in this department. Consider the Polish soccer player Andrzej Krzysztalowicz: his last name is worth 53 points, and his full name takes you all the way up to 77. (That has four Z's in it, a problem if we're only allowed one Z tile and two blanks.) But I'll stop there before readers nod off and create even higher Scrabble scores: ZZZZZZZZ...


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday October 21st 2011, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Delightful. I have always wondered about theze 'z' and 'j' combinations and you have shed a little light on this along with a fun analysis of what it would take to play these behemoths in my favorite game.
Saturday October 22nd 2011, 2:13 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris)
I think Polish Language is an entertaining language for someone who speak American language very well.for understanding words and sentenses of expressions. Maybe a play but with difficulties of perceptionwhen you are French and when your English is not"Tip Top".
Saturday October 22nd 2011, 2:49 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Sorry, but I cannot access 'support' and I've lost the comment notification button.

Great article, but I wish my 'site' was fixed!

My last name, though looking simple, is a possible Frency, Czech, or Italian spelling. We've always used the French, but that is the least obvious!
Monday October 24th 2011, 2:23 PM
Comment by: Wayne C (*******, HI)
Turning to college basketball, at Duke we have head coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski. Question: do Polish native speakers have as much trouble (and fun) pronouncing English as English speakers have with their language?
Tuesday November 8th 2011, 7:10 AM
Comment by: ajmaani W.
hmm......>^<###****
Wednesday November 9th 2011, 1:10 AM
Comment by: Emperor Palpatine (ND)
RZEPCZYNSKI is a very weird last name! but i would like to use it in a actual Scrabble game to win......

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