How New Words Get Added to the Scrabble Dictionaries (Yes, Dictionaries, Plural)
Thanks to Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster, I was able to attend and record interviews with some of the world’s most knowledgable and accomplished Scrabble players. We talked about a controversy about which dictionary to use for official scrabble play, some interesting new words that were recently added to the official word lists, and how to set up a Scrabble club in your school and have your kids compete in the national school Scrabble championship.
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John Chew, co-president of NASPA, in front of the message board at the 2010 North American Scrabble Championships in Reno, NV.
Fogarty: If you’ve listened to this podcast for a long time, you know that people can get emotional about dictionaries. Well, it turns out, there’s a simmering brouhaha in the Scrabble world about which dictionary, or word list, players should use for official tournament play, and this is no light matter because some of these tournaments come with hefty cash prizes, as much as $10,000.
Scrabble was invented in the 1930s, but people didn’t start playing tournaments until the ‘70s, and because tournament culture emerged independently in Britain and the U.S., the Scrabble world ended up with two groups that use different official dictionaries. Players in Britain use what’s called the international word list or the Collins word list because it’s managed by the Collins Dictionary, and people in the U.S. use the North American word list, which is managed by Merriam-Webster.
Merriam-Webster publishes a book knowns as the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary—it’s the red one you’ve probably seen in stores—but it isn’t the official dictionary for tournaments, at least not for adults. It doesn’t contain offensive words, so it’s used for school Scrabble tournaments, but adult tournaments use a more expansive list that’s controlled by the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA), which works closely with Merriam-Webster.
Because there are these two competing word lists, in this ballroom, there are actually two competitions: one between players who play the North American list and one between players who play the international list. And the difference between the two lists is huge—enormous.
Here’s Stefan Fatsis, Scrabble player and author of Word Freak, who was competing in Reno:
Fatsis: The problem is that we’ve established in North America this one list, and the English Scrabble people established another list. And this goes back three decades, so it’s been very difficult to bridge those two worlds. I think if the word lists were closer in volume it would be a lot easier—if the gap wasn’t 90,000 words overall, and a fair number, 25 more two-letter words, some hundreds, xx hundred, more 3-letter words. It’s a pretty big gulf. It’s a big difference and it does change the game.
Fogarty: You might wonder why would anyone voluntarily learn 90,000 more words. That’s a lot. Well, there are a few reasons. There are far more places in the world to play the international list, so if you want to be a Scrabble tourist, it makes sense to learn the international list. Here’s John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Association and the chair of the dictionary committee:
Chew: If you want to travel the world as a Scrabble tourist—and it’s a thing—then being able to play with the international lexicon is essential. There are a few places in the world that play with the North American dictionary, such as part of Israel and much of Thailand, and that’s about it at this point, but everywhere else, they use the international dictionary, because again, the need to have a common reference for the English language that includes words that everyone from every country finds familiar is what drives the ever increasing number of words in the international dictionary.
Fogarty: If you want to travel, playing the international word list is good. And then that huge list with 90,000 extra words gives competitors who have been playing a long time a new goal, a higher mountain to climb, so to speak.
Fatsis: People want a different challenge, so if you’ve been playing competitive Scrabble for 10 or 20 years, you think, “I learned these words, I‘m going to learn some more words,” and Collins definitely gives players the opportunity to learn a lot more words.
Fogarty: A third argument for committing to just one word list is online play. There’s an independent organization called the Internet Scrabble Club that holds competitions called The Virtuals.
Fatsis: There’s definitely a fertile place online for playing Scrabble, and it’s another argument for unifying the world. I don’t need to travel to England or Australia or Malaysia to play other good players, I can just do it online, so if we were all doing it online with the same word list it would be a more interesting place maybe.
Fogarty: Although there were still a lot more people playing the North American list at this big championship—the Collins section seemed to take up only a few tables in the whole ballroom— Fatsis says that more and more North American players have been becoming Collins players.
Fatsis: What’s happened in North America is that many of the top players have stopped playing the North American Scrabble word list and are playing the collins word list, so rather than have at this tournament one fantastic, super competitive division with all of the best players in North America and other parts of the word playing against each other, you have this split. So the effect has been that the the upper ranks of competitive Scrabble in North America have been diminished by the defection of dozens of players to the international word list.
Fogarty: He’s seen the change at his local club too.
Fatsis: When I go to my Scrabble club in Washington every Tuesday night, I’m one of the best players now—well, one of the best players—which is sad because I’m not that good. And the better players that used to come every week have taken up Collins, so personally, it’s made it less fun for me on a weekly basis because I enjoy the challenge of playing players that are far better than I.
Fogarty: So a lot of the top players are defecting to the Collins list, but because the list is so much bigger—remember it’s about 90,000 more words to memorize—people aren’t flocking to it in droves. My impression is that the average players or even the relatively good competitors like Fatsis aren’t making the change because it’s just too daunting. So right now the two lists co-exist and North American tournaments like this one have two tracks.
A lot of people seem to think that the different corporate entities involved will make coming up with a unified list hard. Scrabble in North America is owned by Hasbro and Merriam-Webster publishes the word list, but Scrabble overseas is owned by Mattel and Collins publishes the world list. But, at least if you listen to Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster, it doesn’t sound like a solution is impossible:
Sokolowski: The million dollar question is Is there a time where one can foresee that there’s only one list that’s simpler for anybody? Nobody knows. It’s not in any one entities hand’s. Merriam, NASPA, Hasbro, Mattel, and it could work, and it could be a lot simpler for everyone.