Monday, January 28, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I assure you that I am not in senility yet, I do not inhabit a bath-chair or walk with a walking frame and I am no advocate of cribbage, whist, mahjong or backgammon.
I do not spend my evenings playing antiquated board-games or card-games while waiting for the radio to play an old-time favourite.

            But, at the risk of seeming to confess to old-fogeyism, I admit that I do sometimes play Scrabble.

And I am beginning to have a problem with it.

            For me, Scrabble is a good combination of luck and skill.

The luck part is obvious enough. What tiles you get when you pull them, unseen, out of the bag. What spaces are available for your next word. Such luck sometimes allows people with limited vocabularies to win while the lexically-gifted go down to defeat. At least, that is my excuse when one of my children beats me.

The skill part should also be obvious. The more words you know and the better you can spell, then the more likely you are to fill out spaces advantageously. The more you focus on what is available on the board, rather than making up “perfect” words (out of your allotted seven letters) which you cannot place anywhere, then the more expeditiously you will play. Naturally there is also skill (one of the most essential in the game) in “blocking” – that is, deliberately placing words so as to deny your opponents high-scoring spaces, such as the triple-word score.

So, even though it is partly luck, Scrabble is still a good civilized game.

Set me down with intelligent players, and an Oxford dictionary near at hand to settle disputed spellings, and I am happy. Acronyms, proper names, most abbreviations, most slang, and those foreign words that have not really been assimilated into English are, of course, forbidden. To taste, and depending on whom you are playing, you can decide at the beginning of a game if American spellings are acceptable (“honor” instead of “honour” etc.). But you do have the right to shoot anybody who offers such barbarisms as “thru”.

But here is the problem.

Some years ago, semi-literates began producing things called “Scrabble dictionaries”. They list all the words which, says another set of busybodies, are acceptable in Scrabble according to the game’s international ruling body – that is, the body which makes the rules for those sad people who actually engage in public Scrabble competitions.

Such “Scrabble dictionaries” list many words that are simply not words at all, or that are neologisms of such recent coining as to still be in the slang category. They also include acronyms many of which, naturally, defy the basic rule of English that the letter “Q” must always be followed by the letter “U”. Should I be confronted with a player who justifies a non-word on that basis that “it’s in the Scrabble dictionary”, I make a mental note not to play with that person again.

Now it is bad enough that such unreliable publications are taken as authoritative. But it is twice as bad when, instead of using a dictionary simply to settle disputed spelling, a player uses a dictionary to find out if a word exists, or to find out if his/her tiles could actually form a word. Again, I have once or twice encountered the grisly spectacle of a game halting while a person of limited competence thumbs through a Scrabble dictionary in search of something vaguely resembling a word, and then putting the said nonsense word on the board.

If the game is a game of skill, then the skill comes largely from a player’s competence with words. If a player has to look up a (dubious) dictionary to find out whether words exist, then that player is declaring he/she does not have enough competence to be playing the game in the first place. It is like looking up the answers in a quiz.

I mention all this because recently I heard a radio item about somebody’s proposal that the whole scoring system of Scrabble (especially the value assigned to letters) be overhauled. The argument was that, for example, the value assigned to “Q” should be decreased because there are now “many words” in which “Q” is not followed by “U”.

Actually, there aren’t.

There are only the dubious coinings of the semi-literate Scrabble dictionaries.

What this all means is obvious enough.

The game is being corrupted by the illiteracy of its players.

Should the value of letters be revised, I will insist on playing only with unrevised boards and tiles, sticking with their original values. Should I be asked to approve slang, abbreviation, proper noun or too-recent neologism, I will become physically violent. And the only dictionary I will allow at my table when I play will be the Oxford, solely for the purpose of checking disputed spellings.

If a word is not in that, then it does not exist.


  1. Hmmm, but the complete Oxford dictionary would have all those "non-words" like Qi. It would only be the shorter Oxford dictionary which would exclude them.
    Over the past three decades the Oxford dictionary has been putting a lot of effort into recording words, rather than policing them. This means that if a word ends up in an english language scrabble dictionary, then it will end up in the Oxford dictionary too.

    1. In that case I will insist on no Oxford dictionary later than about 1970. I'm aware that creeping illiteracy affects even prestigious publications [anybody who relies on a Webster's for either usage or spelling requires psychiatric treatment]. Pshaw! I say. In high dudgeon.

  2. Scrabble is one of the few board games can I enjoy but I take ages deciding what word to submit, and most of that time is taken up with bizarre, impossible words dutifully marshalling themselves in my head, then having to be jetissoned.
    Consequently, people get annoyed playing with me.
    There's also the humiliation of being beaten by people who submit dull words which snaffle all the triple word scores.
    My father, who considered himself good at chess, gave up when his grandson beat him with his pawns.