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In Dictionary Battle, Scrabblers Become Squabblers

Earlier this week we featured an excerpt from Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, an entertaining look at the world of competitive Scrabble, now published in a tenth anniversary edition with a special afterword on the latest Scrabble developments. Here we present another excerpt from the afterword, about the raging debates over what words to include in the official Scrabble dictionary.

According to the Scrabble records website, a total of thirty-one 700-plus games were reported from 1980 through 2005. From 2006 through 2010, the mark was surpassed sixteen times, including the two record setters and an 801 club game by veteran player Robert Kahn. Yes, play has improved and study tools have multiplied. But there's one other logical explanation for the growth of the 700 club: the dictionary.

Ten years after the previous update, Merriam-Webster published a fourth edition of the OSPD and a second edition of the OWL, which was introduced for tournament play in 2006. This time, M-W agreed to use not only the new edition of its Collegiate Dictionary but also the latest editions of the American Heritage College Dictionary, Random House Webster's College Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary. To be included in the new Scrabble sources, a word could appear in any of the four books.

Player volunteers combed the dictionaries, recording new entries. The result was the addition of 10,797 words of two through nine letters, plus extensions, for a total of 131,097 words. Add the 47,661 words on a separate list of ten- through fifteen-letter wordsthe Long List, compiled in 2003and, eliminating overlap, the number of playable words in Scrabble in North America as of this writing is 178,691. [...]

The strongest opponent to the word list continues to be Dan Pratt, the retired Defense Department mathematician and linguistics PhD whose research I mentioned in chapter 10. His main beef is still that the OWL contains thousands of words that can't be found in any twenty-first century American college dictionary, including some that appeared in one edition of one dictionary, occasionally in error, as long ago as 1963.

Pratt believes the solution is to start over. He has spent several years compiling and, he told me in 2010, hoped to publish a competing word list that would exclude several thousand out-of-date, obsolete, erroneous, and what by modern standards he considers lexicographically indefensible words found in the OWL. For instance, on the grounds that James Brunot's early rules prohibited foreign words, Pratt planned to delete DE (as in Charles de Gaulle). On the grounds that those rules mentioned "usage," ET (a dialect form of the past tense of "eat") would be out, as would offensive words. To reflect the global reality of English in the Internet age, Pratt's list would consist of words found in several American, Canadian, and international dictionaries, plus some nondictionary sources. To help players understand his lexicographic rationale, he intended to circulate an annotated list of the twos that would appear in his book.

Pratt said his new list wouldn't confuse or enrage players and might attract casual players turned off by strange-seeming words. But while his effort could be viewed as intellectually defensible cleaning out old mistakes, making the game reflect the current state of the language, improving the dictionary part of Scrabble's dictionary it also looked like the subjective crusade of one disaffected customer. I wasn't alone in disagreeing with Pratt's contention that the word set is what discourages many living-room players from going competitive, or with his strict-constructionist interpretation of Scrabble's rules, or that the game should reflect a narrow interpretation of the language.

"If you're still arguing with 'The Book' thirty years and five editions later, you're wasting time you could be spending learning it, and playing the game," G.I. Joel wrote on CGP [the Crossword Games-Pro message board]. "We all know it has its warts, and it's still better than most other things that have been or might be tried."

Inside NASPA, Pratt's efforts had no support. In fact, rather than cleansing the game's lexicographic history, the head of its dictionary committee, Jim Pate, a retired research librarian in Birmingham, Alabama, advocated embracing it in full. For the next OSPD/OWL update, tentatively scheduled for 2013, Pate told me he wanted not only to add a new dictionary source but also to make the OWL historically comprehensive: that is, find and include every word that has been theoretically playable in Scrabble at any time since 1978, when the first OSPD was published. "If it was acceptable at one point and it was not an out-and-out mistake, my feeling is it ought to be in the next edition of OWL," Pate said.

To accomplish that, Pate proposed rechecking the source dictionaries used to compile all four OSPDs and the two OWLs. He would add words that were accidentally or erroneously omitted. And, since the new OWL is for the first time expected to include every playable word of two through fifteen letters, Pate would identify every nine- to fifteen-letter word that wasn't culled for the first two OSPDs, which included only base words of up to eight letters long, and has since gone missing. One example: the nine-letter SLIPSTICK, a casual term for a slide rule. It appeared in a pre-OWL edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. When it was later removed, the word, for Scrabble purposes, died.

I like the idea of sweeping, historic inclusiveness. Good once, if not in error, good forever. The language evolves but the words endure.

Excerpted from Word Freak (10th Anniversary Edition) by Stefan Fatsis. Copyright © 2011 by Stefan Fatsis. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books.

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