Scrabble: a logophile’s view
Even if you’ve never played Scrabble – and, let’s face it, we’ve all played it – you’ll be familiar with the concept: players use seven letter tiles to create words on a board, intersecting with the words which are already there. Then, of course, there are the double-letter, double-word, triple-letter, and (the holy grail) triple-word squares on the board to aim for.
The game was designed by an American architect named Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938, and many decades later the rules have not substantially changed. It is available in 29 languages and 121 countries, with approximately 150 million sets sold worldwide. Each language has its own customized letter distribution and points fitting the language’s alphabet and most commonly used letters – for instance f would score 4 points in the English version, 10 points in the Latvian version, and 2 points in the Welsh version – where ff scores 4.
Two letters or not two letters: that is the question
A test of one’s word recognition and anagrammatic ability, it can be fiercely competitive. Different approaches to the game mean that some players prefer words which sound or look nice – yes, extremely subjective – but this runs the risk of points become a secondary concern. Others choose to disregard the aesthetic value of the words played and focus on those which will garner high scores from the most unlikely positions.
Key to the latter approach are the useful two-letter words. You can read a handy list of them here, from aa (rough cindery lava) to yu (an ancient Chinese wine container). You don’t need to have a three-toed sloth as a pet (otherwise known as an ai) or purchase a particular plant of the lily family (say, a ki) to make the most of your Scrabble opportunities.
Some important Scrabble words
What better way to celebrate Scrabble than by looking at some words? And, while we’re doing so, let’s see how much they’d score in the English language edition (discounting double-letter squares, bonuses, and the like – sometimes known as a word’s ‘natural points’).
scrabble (14 points)
Scrabble wasn’t a made-up word for the game, as you might imagine. As a noun, scrabble is found as early as 1794 (according to Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research), meaning ‘a scramble, a confused struggle’. 1842 sees the earliest known use of the noun to mean ‘a scrawling character in writing’ or a document composed of these characters, or a badly-executed picture.
The verb scrabble is found still earlier – in the Bible, no less. The 1537 Matthew’s Version of the Bible translates 1 Samuel 21:13 as ‘And he… raued in their handes and scrabled on the dores of the gate’. That is, scrabble is used to mean ‘to make marks at random; to write in rambling or scrawling characters’. Other definitions for scrabble include scratching hurriedly with paws by an animal (currently dated to 1600), to scramble on hands and feet (1638), and to struggle or scramble for something (1697).
bingo (7 points)
In 1999, Scrabble’s rules were amended to give a name to the event of playing all of one’s tiles in one go (which adds fifty points to one’s go) – and that word is bingo. Perhaps best known as a game itself, where people check numbers off cards when they are drawn in a lottery, this use is currently first attested in 1936. The cry of triumph is dated a little earlier – 1926 – but the word bingo is found significantly earlier, in 1699, as a slang term for brandy. This use of bingo is believed to be a humorous portmanteau of brandy and stingo; slang for strong ale or beer.
geocache (16 points)
The OED dates geocache to 2000; a container holding objects hidden at a specific location, which people trace using GPS in an activity known as geocaching. Its relevance to Scrabble is that it recently beat a shortlist of sixteen words (including ew, zen, and booyah) to become the first fan-voted word to be deemed newly-eligible by Hasbro, the manufacturers of Scrabble.
muzjiks (29 points)
You could be forgiven for not knowing what this word means, since it is actually the pluralization of a variant spelling of a word which is itself now chiefly historical: muzhik, being a term for a Russian peasant. (In contemporary, colloquial use, its sense has altered to designate a particularly macho Russian male.) But what is the significance for Scrabble, you ask? Well, it’s the highest possible score from your seven letter Scrabble rack, at 29 points – and if you use it as your opening move, placed judiciously, it’s worth an impressive 128 points.
caziques (28 points)
128 points is small fry compared to the highest score ever recorded for a single go in a competition: 392 for caziques, played by Karl Khoshnaw in 2006. Again, this is the pluralization of a variant spelling – this time of cacique, being a native chief in the West Indies and Latin America, or latterly (in Spain and Latin America) a political boss. A cacique is also a gregarious tropical American bird with black plumage and bright red or yellow patches.
Whether the tiles were in your favour or not, and whether you prefer playing favourite words or high-scorers, we hope you had a very enjoyable National Scrabble Day!