Guest writer Bonnie Trenga Mills takes us on a fun romp through some quirky words you may see when you're playing Scrabble.
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Today’s episode is for all you ScrabbleTM addicts out there or for those who want to hear about some weird words. If you play Scrabble on your phone, whether against the computer or another person, you’ve probably found yourself exclaiming, “But that’s not a word!” after your opponent played something such as ka or za. Yes, apparently these are real words, and they are allowed in Scrabble. Let’s get to the bottom of this!
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A Brief History of the Game
Scrabble was invented during the Great Depression by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts. In case you’ve never played, it’s a game in which you connect letters to make words and to earn as many points as possible. All the letters of the alphabet are represented, but some appear more often than others. For example, there are 12 e’s but only one q. After coming up with the concept of the game, Alfred needed to figure out the ideal distribution of letters so that the game would involve skill and chance but not be too easy. To see how often each letter was used in English, he studied the front page of The New York Times. His analysis ended up being quite accurate; his original tile distribution is still valid today (1).
Over the years, the official Scrabble dictionary has evolved, and a dictionary committee maintains the word list (2). These days, it’s Merriam-Webster’s Official Scrabble® Players Dictionary, Fourth Edition (OSPD4), but for club and tournament play, it is the Official Tournament and Club Word List, Second Edition (OWL2), also published by Merriam-Webster (3).
What Words Are Legal in Scrabble?
Let’s look at the official word list a little more closely. According to Hasbro, the maker of Scrabble, “All words labeled as a part of speech (including those listed of foreign origin, and as archaic, obsolete, colloquial, slang, etc.) are permitted with the exception of the following: words always capitalized, abbreviations, prefixes and suffixes standing alone, [and] words requiring a hyphen or an apostrophe” (4). This means that words that everyone knows, such as calendar and happily, are allowed. It also means that words most people have never heard of are allowed. For instance, if we look at the list of the 101 two-letter words allowed in the OSPD4, we’ll encounter many unfamiliar words, along with their definitions (5). Some examples are ka, which means spiritual self, from the Egyptian; ut, an obsolete way of saying the tone do, as in do-re-mi; and za, defined as "pizza." So here, we have examples of a foreign word (ka), an obsolete word (ut), and a colloquial word (za).
The word za is quite interesting. Although it’s hard to imagine going into a pizza joint and asking for a “za,” according to the Free Dictionary, this word is used by young people and is an example of the linguistic concept known as “clipping,” where part of an existing word is chopped off, thereby creating a new word. In this case, pizza becomes za, in the same way that the everyday word wig was formed by clipping the original word periwig (6).
Another interesting site that discusses words allowed in Scrabble is the North American Scrabble Players Association NASPAWiki. Here, you’ll find a page that lists words that were erroneously included in the OSPD4 and words that were erroneously omitted (7). Some of the listed words that were accidentally omitted include braggers and surplusses. No issue there.
However, the list includes some words that one could argue are invalid but aren’t, and it’s interesting to ponder why these particular words are allowed.