Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Scrabble, that familiar board game has become a sport like chess and checkers, with tournaments, cash prizes and an entire subculture of Scrabble aficionadoes, with their own eccentric stars. The game was invented in 1931, by unemployed architect, Alfred Butts, from Poughkeepsie, NY, who called it "Lexico". Unfortunately, Butts' marketing skills were limited, and he gave the games away to his friends. He attempted to sell the game to the major game manufacturers Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, but with no success.

He finally sold the game in 1948 to James Brunot who changed the name to Scrabble. Still, very few units were sold until Jack Straus, the Chairman of Macy's, had occasion to play the game while on vacation. Straus loved the game and ordered thousands of sets for Macy's and in 1952, Scrabble became the most popular game in America. Some well known fans of Scrabble today include Rosie O'Donnell, Mel Gibson, Madonna and her husband, Mr. Madonna, and Kylie Minogue.

In case you came from Mars and are not familiar with the game, Scrabble has a board with 100 tiles to be played. The tiles represent the English alphabet with 98 letters and 2 blanks which may be used for any letter. Points awarded for each letter are based on the frequency of that letter in the English language. For example, "E" is the most common letter, and there are 12 "E"'s in the game, each worth one point. The letters "Q" and "Z" are not common and each has only one tile worth 10 points, while the single "J" and "X" are worth 8 points each. To play, each player is dealt 7 tiles and must make intersecting words on a board like a free flowing crossword puzzle, and in doing so to accumulate the most points. Some of the spaces on the board have premiums for extra points such as double or triple letter and double or triple word. Thus, if you can land a "Q" on a triple letter space, you get 30 points. If you can make a word using all your 7 tiles, you get a bingo, which is worth 50 extra points.

A player's success in a Scrabble tournament is determined by his ability to memorize anagrams, all the 2 and 3 letter words, all words with "Q" and no "U", and other strange letter combinations. While I learned in school that no words exist with "Q" and no "U", the Scrabble Dictionary lists at least 20, which appear to be foreign words which have liberally entered the English language. Examples are:
qanat, qat, qaid, qoph, faqir, tranq, qindar, qintar, qwerty, qi, suq, umiaq, burqa and sheqel. The above spellings are creative, as the "Q" in many of those words can be substituted with "K". I defy anyone to use those words in a sentence. Since there is no committee which decides which words enter the English language, the Scrabble people borrow foreign words to invent new English words to use in the game. A word is defined to include words found in at least one of ten editions of five major U.S. college dictionaries.

There are numerous unacceptable words which people use and may yet enter the English language, such as brainiacs, duh, est, flashcard, gonna, gotta, lemme, newbie, piercings, rainman, and unenjoyable (with only 7 tiles in your rack this one would be tough).

Additional unacceptable words which were removed under controversy include several offensive words such as religious and ethnic slurs and other words considered vulgar such as fart, Jesuit, Papist, piss and turd. Despite the objections of the Romany people, the word gyp is OK, but wetback is not. Another controversy concerned the word jew, used as a verb, which is acceptable for Scrabble. Rumor has it that Mel Gibson often uses that word in his games.

Essentially, if the word is one of the 120,000 words listed in the Official Tournament and Word List (OWL), published by Merriam Webster, it is OK to use it.

The two letter words are helpful to know because you can make several words in one turn by placing a word parallel and adjacent to a word already on the board, but all the two letter combinations must be valid words. There are approximately 120 two letter words. Besides the obvious ones, there are, for example: aa, ae, ag, ai, ea, ee, fy, io, jo, ko, ky, ny, ou, oy, ph, qi, te, ut, xi, xu, yu and zo. There are also 1015 three letter words, such as zzz, aal, baa, zuz, pyx, and taj.

The definitions of some of these words indicate their foreign origins, so one wonders why they are considered part of the English language. For example xu is a Vietnamese monetary unit. Ut is a musical tone in French solmization system (huh!). Aa is rough cindery lava (in Hawaiian). It has a plural--aas. Ai is a 3-toed sloth. Oe is a whirlwind in the Faeroe Islands. Aal is an East Indian shrub. Qi is a Chinese vital force. Baa is the noise a sheep makes. Sheep speak English? Oy expresses dismay, or as my grandmother used to say, "Oy vey is mir!" But she thought she was speaking Yiddish, not English. How about mm, an expression of satisfaction? These are words?

To be a skilled tournament player in Scrabble, you must master those 2 and 3 letter words. Also there is the difficult situation where the player is left with a rack full of vowels. There is a solution! There is one 3 letter word with all vowels--eau, the French word for water. But there are 62 four letter words with only one consonant, such as alee, ooze, ajee, ixia, ciao, and eaux.
There are also 21 five letter words with only one consonant, such as aalii, adieu, queue, zoeae, etc.

Learn all of these, and you'll be better than the average living room player. But if you're looking to make money, don't quit your day job.




Blogger James said...

Hi Ken,

Thanks for your time this morning, and I look forward to working with Mark and the board.

If I can be of assistance here, don't hesitate to call on me.

I took a quick look at this blog, and your efforts are to be commended. I'll look closer for the sports ones after work.

Thanks again,


Jim Powers, Managing Editor
Libertyville Review
Mundelein Review
Vernon Hills Review

(847) 599-6950

December 3, 2007 at 11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic "QUICK" overview of how to play Scrabble.

Thanks for the heads up on many of the two, three, etc. letter words.

Where can I get a copy of the 120,000 official word list of scrabble?

Great article!

January 9, 2008 at 8:45 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home