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Proper nouns, improper Scrabble

April 11, 2010

Despite, if I may be allowed a moment of egocentric puffery, possessing an excellent vocabulary, there are certain word games that exceed my abilities.

Image courtesy of BBC News Online.

I am truly hopeless at cryptic crosswords, unlike my father who can divine meaning from the most obscure and circuitous clues. Anagrams leave me as jumbled up as the original clue, unlike my wife who seems able to decipher the original word instantly (perhaps this is a skill that develops in teachers to help them understand their students’ handwriting).

And Scrabble sees me seething with frustration at a rack full of consonants, and only able to make the word “it”. And not even on a triple word score.

But the venerable game of Scrabble has just announced its first major rule change in 62 years.

Originally touted as allowing “celebrities, places and products” into the hallowed list of acceptable Scrabble words, reaction from Scrabble purists was, shall we say, slightly negative (“a sign of the apocalypse” is how one enthusiast described it).

And you can understand why. Scrabble relies on one player having a richer vocabulary than the other, to make best use of the tiles they have drawn. In the event of a dispute, a dictionary is the final arbiter (in the UK it is based on the Collins dictionary). But if you start allowing celebrities, who decides? If your opponent has never heard of Justin Bieber, why should they accept it? If you were playing palaeontologists, you would be allowed Edward Drinker Cope, but I doubt many outside that field would agree with the tag “celebrity”.

However, Scrabble is not allowing “celebrities, places and products”. Mattel, who hold the rights to Scrabble worldwide (except the US and Canada), are introducing a new version of Scrabble called “Scrabble Trickster” which will, amongst other twists on the classic, allow the use of proper nouns.

I’ve never quite understood the snobbery surrounding the use of proper nouns in Scrabble. As is pointed out in the CNet article posted above, many names are nouns in their own right, and so would be accepted. In the BBC article, it makes it clear that a small number of proper nouns are accepted in traditional Scrabble, so long as they appear in the list based on the Collins dictionary. I’ve just used the online Collins Scrabble Checker to discover that my own name is perfectly valid in Scrabble, and worth a minimum of 6 points, whilst my wife’s name is not allowed, despite being a type of rose.

If proper nouns are so abhorrent, then why allow any? Why not just be consistent in the rules and say “no proper nouns at all, under any circumstances”?

Or is this just the frustrated player in me, petulantly sulking because his opponent has just put down all their tiles on a triple word score. And they used a Q. On a triple letter square…

Scrabble frustrates me, but not nearly as much as backgammon. I’m not convinced that game even has rules…
  1. adampb permalink
    April 11, 2010 1:55 am

    Being a poor Scrabble player myself (the English teacher losing to his wife who is not an English teacher – she somehow manages to get all the triple-word and letter scores using Q and Z – she has awesome letter luck), I always think of an extract from the BBC comedy Red Dwarf (see below):

    [Cat and Lister are playing Scrabble.]
    Cat: Hey hey hey, I’ve got you now, buddy! J, O, Z, X, Y, Q, K!
    Lister: That’s not a word.
    Cat: It’s a Cat word.
    Lister: Jozxyqk?
    Cat: That’s not how you pronounce it!
    Lister: What does it mean?
    Cat: It’s the sound you make when you get your sexual organs trapped in something.
    Lister: Is it in the dictionary?
    Cat: Well it could be, if you’re reading in the nude and close the book too quick. Jozxyqk!!!
    Bonus 50 points if you can get this one into your next game!

  2. April 11, 2010 2:24 am

    My favourite scrabble moment is from The Simpson’s

    Homer: What’s qwygbo?
    Bart: A fat balding middle aged man?

    I am a scrabble purist – having learnt from my mother (who still holds the formidable title of the Queen of Scrabble in our family). To beat my mother is akin to climbing Mount Everest. And I have to pull you up on a point you make Paul – scrabble isn’t just about having a greater vocabulary than your competitors – it is about being more cunning. My mother can take two letters and some how come up with a score of 30+. Lots of scrabble strategy is about where you put the word, and how you can make the letters work best for you – rather than just having a better word.

    So guessing Scrabble and Backgammon are both out when it comes to finally meeting up. What about Trivial Pursuit… or if we’re really scraping, snap?

  3. April 11, 2010 2:31 am

    He’s just smarting because I’m a merciless backgammon queen, with a party trick of clearing my counters while my opponent still has a piece on the bar.

    Turns out, when you do that to Paul the first time he plays, he gets a little upset…

  4. April 13, 2010 3:14 am

    I try to play Scrabble online and it REFUSES to accept that ‘Zen’ is a word, yet it allows the most random combination of letters that it claims are real life words, even though no one on the planet has ever used them. I therefore refuse to play!

  5. April 13, 2010 5:36 am

    I have never liked the game. I am the sort of spoilt child who won’t play a game unless there is a very good chance of winning. I have a reasonable vocabulary, but not for Scrabble.

    There are few more frightening things that my hostess at a dinner party can say that strike more accurately at my viscera than; “Well, that was a lovely meal, although I say it myself. Now! Who’s for a game of Scrabble?”
    Or the idiot guest who proclaims, “Well that was a lovely meal that Angela has given us. I think we should all do the washing up, and let her have a well earned rest”.
    I don’t do washing up. I have a dishwasher at home.
    I don’t play Scrabble. It is a tool of the devil. Divorces have been caused by the dreadful game. The Prodigal Son most probably left home because of it.

    And then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw a documentary on the television. Apparently the best Scrabble players don’t care one bit about the meanings of the words they commit to memory. Apparently there is a compendium of words specifically printed for the Scrabble players of this world. It is not a dictionary; there are no definitions; just a list of words. Apparently the names of the currencies of some South East Asian states are the richest sources of words for the wretched game.

    I rest my case. I can’t play Scrabble. I hate Scrabble.

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