Did you know the earliest recorded usage of the word 'scrabble'?

It isn’t just a clever word-game; it both reflects and expands the changing usage patterns of the English language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 18 Jan 2024, 8:22 PM

My father was a Scrabble fanatic. He picked up the game as a young man in England, played it obsessively, and when he returned to India in 1958, organised a small group of equally dedicated Scrabble addicts in Mumbai for a weekly joust around the board. As soon as his children became old enough, we were roped in to play with him too. It’s since become a family habit, and I know Daddy would have been proud that one of his grandsons has become a formidable conqueror of the board, scattering seven-letter words every time he plays.

Scrabble, for the uninitiated, is a word game designed for two to four players. The objective of the game is to arrange lettered tiles on a square board to create words that connect with others already played. Each tile carries a point value, which may be doubled or tripled if placed on specific marked squares on the board. The idea is to score more points than the other players with the words you play. Using all the seven tiles you’re allowed to play per turn gives you a 50-point bonus. Luck enters into it too, since you may draw tiles that don’t combine well together, or have low point value, or don’t connect with the words already played on the board.

The earliest recorded usage of the word “scrabble” is in a 1537 translation of the Bible (1 Samuel 21:13): “And he … scrabbled on the doors of the gate”. Almost four centuries later, in 1931, Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed American architect, created a game called “Criss-crosswords”, based on the crossword puzzle. The rights to the game were acquired from Butts by Jim Brunot, who in 1948 changed the game’s name to “Scrabble” to better reflect players scrambling for tiles and forming coherent words with them. It was an instant hit, and continues to be universally popular, in multiple languages and even Braille.

Scrabble isn’t just a clever word-game; it both reflects and expands the changing usage patterns of the English language. The quest for creating viable words out of seemingly unsuitable tiles has led people to revive and sanctify some unusual words. There are “official Scrabble dictionaries”, listing every word permitted in the game (over 276,000), published by Merriam-Webster in the US and Collins in the UK (and they sometimes differ!). Inclusion in the authorised dictionary gives words a legitimacy that other dictionary-makers notice. The US dictionary’s most recent update incorporated an additional 500 new words and variations, including “inspo” (for the generationally-challenged, acceptable shorthand for “an inspiring influence”), “vibed”, and “vibing”.

Scrabble teaches me new words every time I play with really dedicated Scrabblers, who have mastered rare combinations of letters — the word “ixnay”, for instance, meaning “to reject or put a stop to”. (It’s also been elevated to verb status, permitting variations like “ixnayed”, “ixnaying”, and “ixnays”.) Scrabble has even transformed the word “verb” into a verb, allowing players to use terms such as “verbed” and “verbing”. It has accommodated 21st century vocabulary by accepting compound words now in popular usage, such as “pageview”, “fintech” and “retweet”, along with new words beginning with “un” such as “unfollow” and “unmute”. The term “Fauxhawk”, describing a Mohawk-style haircut, makes the cut; so do two rare words using the high-scoring letter Z, “zonkey” (an animal born from a male zebra and a female donkey), and “zedonk” (whose parentage is the other way around). The latest Scrabble dictionary also resurrects the term “yeehaw”, a popular cry in cowboy movies but not often seen in writing.

It has, however, removed over 200 words containing racial, ethnic, or offensive content. Even though some of them exist in other dictionaries, you can’t play them in Scrabble. Should the meaning of the words you play matter, or is it enough that they exist? Scrabble purists objected that all they’re trying to do is score points, not insult anyone. But the Scrabble dictionary decrees otherwise. Some consolation: foreign words used often enough in English have made it to the dictionary: recent inclusions include “iftar”, for the post-fasting meal during Ramadan, “kharif”, for the autumn harvest in India, “yaar” (Hindi for friend) — and (appropriately enough) the exclamation “aiyo”!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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