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New Scrabble Dictionary Disrepects The Game

The Scrabble dictionary is getting an update. But it’s not going so well, and the world’s best players aren’t happy.

Much of the press coverage of the update has focused on added millennial argot. Commentators have chuckled at the inclusion of “selfie,” “texter,” “vlog,” “hashtag” and similar words. Stephen Colbert even blessed the update with his faux outrage:

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But “bromance” is the least of the dictionary’s problems.1

The trouble started when the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA oversees tournaments), Merriam-Webster (it publishes the dictionaries) and Hasbro (it owns the game) set out to update two word lists — one for competitive play and one for casual play. After many months of work, the books were finally published in August.

But then serious players started noticing errors. There are typos, valid words which have been excluded, and invalid words which have been included. The two lexicons don’t agree, either. And it’s not clear what’s being done about it.

Former world and national champion Joel Sherman posted on Facebook, “I’m merely disgusted by the low quality on every front, and the potential for disruption it has brought to us.”

The director of the Seattle Scrabble Club, Rebecca Slivka, described it to me like this: “A clusterfuck.”2

The Official Tournament and Club Word List (OWL) governs tournament play, and is not made readily available to the public. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) is for casual and family play, and is sold in bookstores.3 Aside from expurgated words — offensive or trademarked words omitted from the OSPD — these dictionaries are meant to be identical. But this time they aren’t.

This troubles players. What about “offa,” is it valid? It is in OWL but not in OSPD. Ditto “outa.” Same goes for the highly playable “sez” and “xed” and “wuz” and “yez.” The competitive players demand answers. What’s the good word? (I should mention that, as a card-carrying tournament player myself, I have a deep, aching personal interest in the answer to that question.)

“Is it just me, or are others also highly discouraged by the prospect of losing turns in future games simply because of seemingly myriad inconstancies been the new dictionary [OSPD] and the new word list [OWL]?” asked expert player Jerry Lerman on a discussion board devoted to the game.

Chris Lipe, a member of NASPA’s Dictionary Committee until late last month, walked me through what happened. The committee sent lists of words to Merriam-Webster, which then assembled both the OWL and the OSPD. But there were some mixups, and the published OWL included only 9,000 of the 18,000 words the committee sent — and, maybe worse, included some “questionable” words the committee had never intended to publish without further review. Merriam-Webster did not, apparently, include those words wholesale in the OSPD. Discrepancies between these two books are the source of much of the errata.

“We expected them to have a certain level of input and oversight and have editorial control, and take what we submitted and come up with a good product. And for whatever reason that didn’t happen,” Lipe said, referring to Merriam-Webster. “We didn’t get out what we expected.”

Lipe gave an example. Newly added would be the word “lookit,” as in, “Lookit, over there!” But what about the word’s inflections? Is “lookit” a verb? Or a defective verb with an incomplete conjugation? Or is it an interjection? The Dictionary Committee wanted the advice of the pros, so it included the conjugations (“lookits,” “lookited,” “lookiting,” etc.) in its list of “questionable” words.

According to Merriam-Webster, “lookit” is an interjection, “used to draw attention to something.” As such, “lookiting” should be no good. (You can look up OSPD words on Merriam-Webster’s website.) However, “lookiting” appears as valid in the OWL. (In order to look up OWL words one needs to be a NASPA member.)

There are also plain old typos. The new word list, as is, contains — read closely — “disrepects” and “disrepecting” as valid words.

“It is clear that there was some miscommunication on this point which we regret,” Merriam-Webster’s director of marketing, Meghan Lunghi, told me. “It is our understanding that the Dictionary Committee is working diligently to ensure all errors are corrected.”

Errors aren’t anything new, and in a book containing more than 100,000 words they may be unavoidable. The current incarnation of the OWL (“OWL2”) initially included the nonword “crababble” (a typo for “crabapple”), for example. But, whereas the official errata for the current OWL includes 10 entries, the error count for the “revised” edition (“OWL3”) could be in the hundreds.

The biggest issue among competitive players is the lack of a publicly available electronic version of the new list. While Merriam-Webster publishes the OWL and the OSPD, Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in the U.S. and claims copyright on the word lists. Stefan Fatsis, also a Scrabble player, wrote recently in Slate about these intellectual property issues, and Hasbro’s maybe dubious claim. Nevertheless, Hasbro is protecting the lists like never before.

Electronic lists are how the vast majority of players learn words. Such a list underlies computer study tools such as Zyzzyva. But Hasbro’s enforcement of its copyright is preventing such a list.4

“By doing that, unfortunately, they’re really screwing the players,” Slivka, the Seattle Scrabble Club director, said.

NASPA seems aligned with Hasbro on the issue. Slivka got a warning message from NASPA’s co-president, John Chew, after she mentioned an electronic version of a word list in a post on the organization’s Facebook page. Chew deleted her post, asked her to refrain “from making posts which may incite illegal behaviour,” and told her that NASPA was “trying to err on the side of caution following discussions with Hasbro about this subject,” according to messages Slivka shared with me.

Because of Hasbro’s copyright, and the absence of a public electronic list, errors have been tedious to identify. Slivka maintains an unofficial list of errata, with notes, at the Seattle Scrabble Club website. John Attamack, a North Carolina player, has posted a slew of words — some likely erroneous, some merely interesting — in a series of posts to a NASPA-related Yahoo group. The title of one of these is “Over 450 Words (at least) Need to Be Checked.”

Chew remains hopeful. “We are working closely and diligently to ensure all errors are corrected,” he told me via email.

Late last month, NASPA’s other co-president, Chris Cree, posted to the organization’s Facebook group that he was “through 24% of the book,” referring to the OWL, and had seen only three entries that raised eyebrows. He wrote, “I just don’t see it as that big a deal.”

The lasting detriment of this arrangement may not be the errata per se — mistakes can be fixed, regardless of how many there are. The real problem may be holding the list under lock and key.

“There’s definitely benefits in innovation to having a word list open: for players, and for the tournament scene, and for the game as a serious endeavor. And so the current state of affairs where it’s really a limited audience that can even look at the list — you have to be a NASPA member to purchase a book, or to get Zyzzyva and look at it in electronic format — that’s potentially a big deal,” Lipe said.

The developer of Elise, the strongest artificial intelligence Scrabble player, is not a NASPA member, for example. She’s just a programmer with a keen interest in the game.

While frustration has been the prevailing mood, the difficult irony of the situation is also not lost on the players.

“We, the players, generated that new information, gave it to them, and now we’re begging to get access to it,” Slivka said.

Footnotes

  1. For the record, for all its mention in the press as a “new” word, including on Colbert’s show, “funplex” has been valid for many years. I had to tell someone.
  2. Despite a wide array of new colorful language introduced to Scrabble’s Official Tournament and Club Word List, this word did not make the cut.
  3. To confuse matters a bit more, there is really a third dictionary in American Scrabble. That one is called “Collins Scrabble Words” (Collins, or CSW). Collins typically governs English-language play outside the U.S., including at World Championships. However, some U.S. tournaments are played using Collins, often featuring top American players who play internationally, including in World Championships.
  4. In fact, NASPA recently bought Zyzzyva, and it will now include a encrypted word list licensed by Hasbro. The list will also be restricted: It will not be possible to easily export all the words.

Oliver Roeder is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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