WTF Scrabble?

“WTF” is not allowed in the game of Scrabble, because it’s an initialism. This will probably remain the case forever, and rightly so because it’s a game of words. It’s an initialism because it doesn’t create a word, unlike an acronym, such as NATO. No dilemma in Scrabble though, because NATO is a name. Names, brands and other proper nouns are not allowed in Scrabble. Why not?

1) Because there are a gazillion of them and so they’re unverifiable in a standard dictionary

2) Because almost anything can become a name. See the game VVVVVV for an example. Not that you have enough V’s in Scrabble for that, but you get my point.

However, today Scrabble has announced that in future versions of the games, the rule sheet will allow proper nouns, names and brands. Their excuse is that it will “add a new dimension, blah blah popular culture blah” which is marketing-speak for “help, no-one is buying our game any more”. Well fine, it’s your game, you can do what you want. Change the rules all you like, it’s not your problem that the younger generation have vocabularies limited to ‘McD’ and ‘P Diddy’ – cause that’s the message I’m getting here. Hey kids, sorry you don’t know any words, just use the brands you’re exposed to every day, that’ll present less of a challenge! I find it insulting to kids and a prime example of ‘dumbing down’, a phrase I generally avoid along with ‘political correctness gone mad’ but in this case apt.

In my house, as a kid, Scrabble was a huge challenge, and increasing my vocabulary was not just a motivation for beating my opponents, but a direct result of playing against those who knew more words than I. I tried cheating by grabbing the dictionary to pretend I was checking a word, when in reality I was searching for words which fit the tiles I had. I can clearly remember my parents looking askance at the six-year-old me and asking if I actually knew what ORGASM meant.

The solution is quite simple: just stick to the old rules, and if your opponent tries to put down ‘KFC’, make them eat their own tiles.

ETA: I have refined the original to reflect the entirety of the new rules and correct my mistype of ‘proper noun’ for ‘pronoun’, ironically.

ETA2: There’s always the chance this is a cynical marketing ploy by Scrabble and they will pretend to bow under public pressure, basking in the glory of all the free press coverage and blog outrage. If that’s the case, GTFO, Scrabble.

ETA3: Looks like ETA2 is half right. Scrabble is indeed playing the ‘let’s put out a tiny bit of info to the press and get loads of free publicity from the resulting hoo-hah, reminding everyone how much they love original Scrabble!’ game. The REAL story here:

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  1. I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to point out that proper nouns and pronouns are not the same thing.

    Regardless of that, though, Scrabble is way off-base here.

  2. In other words, now the dictionary can no longer settle the arguments, you now need internet access and Google to decide who’s right?

  3. @exarch: Yep, that would appear to be the case. And just about anything you invent comes up in Google – and equally, not everything which is a proper noun does. To what authority would disputes be referred? Wikipedia? Nominet registrations? MADNESS I TELL YOU.

  4. This is just like the endless dumbed-down specialty versions of Trivial Pursuit that started coming out, except that is dumbing down the main game.

    Maybe the problem with Scrabble is that they clung too fast to the official rules for so long. I’ve seen people play speed scrabble, fudge scrabble, and the like for years. Acknowledging these variations and making the game play more exciting for those groups of friends/family that know that when we play Scrabble, “so-and-so’s going to win.”

    But then again, I don’t work as a consultant for Milton Bradley, at least that’s what they said as security was tossing me out of the building a couple years ago.

  5. It’s much easier when there’s virtually no combination of letters that isn’t a proper noun in some language or another. Aberhafesp? Penstrowed?Caersws? No problem! All places in Wales!
    Throw down an X or a Z and a few random vowels and you’ll almost certainly have spelled the name of some village in China.

    I’m just going to practise some civil disobedience and keep playing by the old rules. Stick it to The Man!

  6. @Tracy King: Interestingly, a word that doesn’t come up in Google (or anywhere else) is “griedendeleriade” which sounds as if it might mean something in German but is what the T9 dictionary in my phone thinks I’m trying to write, for some reason, when I’m actually trying to write “Griffenfeldsgade”, the name of a street in Copenhagen and now a valid word in Scrabble.

  7. Growing up, I played Scrabble with my family and we followed the rules as they were. Break the “proper noun” rule and you were shunned. I agree with Tracy that this bastardization of the sacred rules of the game is madness! What’s next? Dogs and Cats sleeping together? ;-)

    Fun fact: Between 1952 and 1986, Scrabble was made by Selchow & Righter, whose factory was located in Bay Shore, NY. The town where I was born!

  8. I never liked Scrabble – as soon as it was pointed out that words had to read left to right, top to bottom, rather than being in any direction.

    Took all the fun out of it.

  9. @Rei Malebario:
    I’m actually trying to write “Griffenfeldsgade”, the name of a street in Copenhagen and now a valid word in Scrabble.
    Sadly, I don’t think that’s ever going to be a valid Scrabble word, as you’re not allowed to place tiles outside the 15×15 grid to form your words …

  10. I think, if they wanted to make it more open without just making it dumber, they should instead allow you to form your own compound words as long as it was reasonably obvious what they meant.
    MONKEYBOILER: Quite obviously someone who boils monkeys
    CRANEPAINT: Paint for painting cranes
    SEALHEAP: A heap of dead seals
    And so on…

    @exarch: That’ll be next!

  11. Actually, I think the reason people don’t buy the board game anymore is that they can play it – and other types of word games – online. Either by themselves or with other people. I don’t really think the vocabulary list standard has anything to do with it.

    And if you have a game night, well, there are all sorts of good group party games now that more people like to play, like Settlers of Catan or Apples to Apples. Or, you know, your Wii. I stopped hopefully bringing a Scrabble board to any game night years ago – no one is into it. (My husband is dyslexic, so won’t play at all.)

    Besides, it’s not like there’s a Scrabble police officer that comes with your game. If you want to relax the rules for an easier game for novices, you can do that until they get used to it. Not everyone likes word-based games.

  12. @Chasmosaur, so true. many games require a lot of setup before and/or sorting out afterwards. Why bother playing solitaire with real cards when you can play it on a computer with far less hassle? Not to mention the computer lets you know when you accidentaly make an illegal move.

  13. Scrabble has always been more about learning Scrabble-specific words than about building your vocabulary. Some of the words in the official M-W dictionary aren’t really words, like “el” which means “the letter L,” “‘pe” which is a Hebrew letter, and “fa” which is a solfege syllable. I was always annoyed when I got beat by people who knew these Scrabble-specific non-words, and I only got reasonably good when I hunkered down and learned them myself. But in Scrabble, you’re much more likely to use these short non-words than long words, so there’s little reason to learn the words that would expand your vocabulary in useful ways, unless you’re planning to become a club / professional player.

    If you want to build your vocabulary, there are lots of books and web sites for that. As for Scrabble, it’s just a game.

  14. Of course we should just all band together and ignore this new rule as if it were just another New Coke(tm) marketing mistake and play the “correct” way. Maybe we should make a name for ourselves. Those Who Play Scrabble By the Real Rules or TWPSBRR… by the new rules, would that be legal? 7 letters… it could be a bingo.

  15. This is one aspect of something I’ve been thinking about lately, and that is ownership of culture. Legally, Hasbro owns the trademark and copyright on Scrabble®, so (to the extent that anything about intellectual property law is clear) they clearly have the legal right to change the rules of the game. But in some other (moral? cultural?) sense, when ideas and their manifestations are released into the culture, they gradually become part of that culture as a whole, and the concept of ownership becomes murky. I think that’s why people get upset when the owner of the copyright on “Happy Birthday to You” demands royalties whenever the song is used in the media: We don’t think of that song as having an owner but rather as part of our cultural heritage.

  16. This will solve at least part of my problem in Scrabble. I have a fairly decent vocabulary, but whenever I play word games I get hung up on weird proper nouns I can spell (Ur, anyone?) as well as fictional nouns and proper nouns. The fictional nouns and proper nouns will still probably overwhelm me. I don’t play this sort of game often enough that I’ve managed to develop any sort of filter to keep useless words out.

  17. @TheoJones: You will be delighted to hear that the new rules allow for placing words backwards, and also independent of other words (i.e. anywhere on the board). I kid you not.

  18. @Tracy King: Hey I golf and if you want to hear about some rule obsessive traditionalists folk… . And as for the 70’s I was a teenager with some rockin platform shoes, long hair parted in the middle and flowing down to my shoulders (Not, I repeat not a mullet). I recall Scrabble being a game your parents might play, and my group of friends was fairly obsessed with playing Risk and Pong was just becoming popular.

  19. Its actually a new variant of the game being released called Scrabble Trickster. The original rules will still apply to Scrabble. Scrabble Trickster is only going to be sold outside North America

  20. Thanks for updating the post, Tracy. Stefan Fatsis, the author of the Slate article and the book Word Freak, is correct. I’m a tournament Scrabble player (in fact, I wrote the computer program that is used to adjudicate challenges at almost every Scrabble tournament in North America), and there is no way Scrabble itself will be changed to allow proper nouns. I even read in one of these ridiculous articles that “Mattel said there would be no hard and fast rule over whether a proper noun was correct or not.” Um, no. That would never fly. Scrabble players are almost as cantankerous as us skeptics, and they would never stand for it.

  21. Scrabble went down hill as soon as they released a dictionary containing two and three letter foreign words. It became a memory game for most people to use up the difficult tiles with names of obscure coins and such like.

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