Groping Frantically for the Right Word

Scrabble® turned 60 this year.

My mother’s Scrabble game isn’t quite as old as that, but it’s been around a long time. The board is a bit battered around the edges but still readable. The tiles, now kept in a handmade denim bag that she made, are all still there. The original box is still holding together, with a little help from a rubber band.

My Scrabble game is much newer and much fancier. The Deluxe version, it was a Christmas gift from my stepson a few years ago. Its board has plastic dividers between the letter spaces, and it comes complete with its own turntable. (My mother just sets hers on the lazy Susan that usually sits in the middle of the kitchen table.)

Old or new set, plain or deluxe, however, the game itself is still the same. It hasn’t really changed since it was invented during the Great Depression by Alfred Mosher Butts, an out-of-work architect. He originally called it “Lexico,” then decided on “Criss-Cross Words.” It wasn’t until 1948 that Mr. Butts and his partner, James Brunot, trademarked the name Scrabble and began manufacturing games in quantity.

According to Merriam-Webster, one meaning for the word “scrabble” is to “scrawl or scribble.” Another is “to scratch, claw, or grope about clumsily or frantically.” I’m not sure which meaning the inventors had in mind. I do know that if you draw seven vowels—or seven consonants, for that matter—“groping about frantically” is a pretty good description of your play for the rest of the game.

My family, readers and crossword puzzle fans that we are, includes several dedicated Scrabble players. Dedicated, anyway, by our standards, which are not exactly those of hard-core tournament Scrabble players.

According to the official Scrabble website, if you want to improve your scores, the first thing you should do is memorize a list of 96 two-letter words. Serious tournament players do this as a matter of course. Apparently they also spend their free time going through dictionaries and memorizing new words, particularly ones containing the high-scoring letters such as q, z, x, k, and j. Not wanting to clutter their brains with non-essentials, they don’t bother about the definitions of those words.

This is where my family parts ways with serious Scrabble players. According to our rules, if you can’t define it, it isn’t a word. We scorn the very idea of memorizing a list of obscure two-letter constructions that don’t even seem like real words, at least in English. Where’s the fun in that?

One family member, who shall remain anonymous, started playing Scrabble online a couple of years ago, and she did memorize that infamous list of two-letter words. After that, playing with her was no fun at all. It was a matter of principle; the fact that she consistently beat us had nothing to do with it.

Truly, though, we play Scrabble because we enjoy words. Yes, we’re competitive and we want to win. But if we have to choose between making a really cool word and playing a drab word that will get us more points, we’re as likely to choose the former as the latter. If we can put that really cool word on a double word score, of course, so much the better.

And I must admit that, just once before I die, I’d like to play “quartzite” on a triple word score.

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