It was 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, when American architect Alfred Butts joined the bulging ranks of the unemployed. There just weren’t many buildings being erected so Butts decided to construct something else – a game for adults.
He called his game Lexico. It was played without a board and players received points based on the lengths of the words formed. One would receive bonus points by using less common letters such as K or W, and very rare letters like Q and Z would fetch even greater points.
How did Butts do his computing in the pre-cyber era? He meticulously checked the frequency of letters on the front pages of the New York Times. He came up with a formula that consisted of 100 letters comprising 12 Es, nine each for the second-most-common letters A and I, and in decreasing frequency for other letters, down to one for Z, X, Q, K, and J.
In 1938, the popularity of crossword puzzles gave Butts the idea of combining the letters with a playing board in which words could be joined as in crossword puzzles. Over the years, Butts’ game was marketed under several other names: New Anagrams, Alph, Criss-Cross and Criss Crosswords – and finally the one that stuck in 1948, Scrabble.
Today, Scrabble is distributed in 121 countries and can be played in over 20 language versions. Interestingly, Scrabble highlights differences in the English language or should I say English languages. In North America, words are drawn from the Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary (OSPD), whereas in most of the rest of the world the official dictionary is SOWPODS. SOWPODS is a marriage of OSPD and OSW (Official Scrabble Words). In days of yore, North America used OSPD and the United Kingdom (UK) et al employed OSW. The UK then decided to combine the lists and declare all the words acceptable. Since the resulting smorgasbord of titles OSPDOSW or OSWOSPD was a mouthful, the anagram SOWPODS was chosen. In any case, the fusion that created SOWPODS leaves players with over 80,000 more words than are available under the OSPD rubric.
This is not to say that OSPD has remained frozen. It was first published in 1978 and included words of two to eight letters found in five official college dictionaries, and has been updated once or twice each decade. The last update occurred in 2005 adding approximately 4,000 words such as qi, a term from Chinese philosophy that refers to circulating life energy; the highly dubious za, a shortening probably coined by inarticulate pizza inhalers; the equally sketchy al, an East Indian tree; and oxid, a variation of oxide. Incidentally, ok was not okay.
Also not okay are a series of words expunged from OSPD in the 1990s such as the word jew used as a verb meaning to haggle. In toto, 170 words were deleted including fart, jesuit, papist and redskin. Many Scrabble players were incensed with this censorship and a compromise was reached: The official dictionary for home and school was censored but the ‘offensive’ words were deemed acceptable for tournament play.
On March 12, 2014, Hasbro, the company that makes Scrabble, invited enthusiasts to nominate words via its Facebook page. Its announcements stated that thousands of new words will be added to OSPD such as selfie and hashtag.
In an attempt to include the hoi polloi, Hasbro announced that fans had until March 28 to send in their nominations and that 16 finalists would be unveiled April 2 before being narrowed down to a single word chosen April 10 and added to the latest version of OSPD.
Here is the sweet sixteen line up: adorbs, bestie, bitcoin, booyah, emotypo, cosplay, ew, geocache, hangry, lifehack, luckbox, nowish, phablet, retweet, woot, and zen.
Most commentators were betting that the eventual winner would be ew or zen but they weren’t counting on the lobbying ability of aficionados of one of the words. Shortly after voting commenced, the Geocache.com Twitter feed implored its 56,000 followers: “Should geocache count in Scrabble? Say ‘heck yeah!’ Comment ‘Geocache’ on Hasbro’s FB page.” Incidentally, geocache is a verb that means to seek items by means of a GPS device as part of a game.
I was pleased that the interjection ew did not win as the official Scrabble rules already allows a plethora of them, such as ah, aw, eh, er, hm, mm, oh, oi, oy, sh, uh, and um. When I play Scrabble, I try to negotiate the non-use of interjections.
Howard Richler’s book Arranged and Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.