Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, explains why he is bad at Scrabble.
The first dictionary I ever read, or tried to read, was the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. I was somewhat obsessed with the game when I was a child, and my parents gave it to me as a gift one Christmas. It is filled with words that never come up in everyday use, and I have a strong memory of the delight that I felt when I discovered an entirely new aspect of the game opening up: the use of obscure words. My memory is just as vivid of the disgust that my grandmother, who was my most frequent opponent, would voice whenever I played one of these words.
When I was in my early teens I belonged to a Scrabble club and played in local tournaments. Among the types of people who populate such things my word use was looked upon as normal. I don’t think I ever read the Scrabble dictionary all the way through, but I pored obsessively over it, and collected lists of words that fellow aficionados had put together – all the 2 and 3 letter words, words with a q and no u after it, and words made up entirely of vowels, or absent vowels at all.
As time marched on, I drifted away from compulsive Scrabble playing. Instead, I adopted the ancillary habit as my primary one: I read dictionaries. I read them the way other people might read novels or works of history. When people hear of this peculiarity I have, they often remark that I must be quite good at Scrabble. I used to silently agree with them, telling myself that yes, I must be quite good at it indeed, what with all the silly words I have swimming about in my head. And so, one day not long ago, I decided to see how good I was at this game on which I had wasted so much of my youth. It turns out that I am horrible: reading dictionaries had ruined my Scrabble game.
I bought a version of the game on CD, and popped it into my computer with a small quiver of anticipation. When the menu prompted me to select the level of opponent I wished to compete against I chose one who was hard, but not the hardest. I reasoned that I wanted some sort of competition, but also didn’t want the game to feel bad when I effortlessly wiped the floor with its star player. I needn’t have worried.
First and foremost, the electronic version of Scrabble is much better than I could ever be. Even its bench players had no trouble beating me by more than a hundred points, the word-game equivalent of getting lapped on a track. Not only was Maven (the computer game’s name for my antagonist) putting down words I’d never heard of, it was also failing to recognize a great number of my favorite words when I tried to play them. Once I put down on the board some harmless variant of a common word that I’d read in the Glossary of North County Words, and the machine sparkled, winked, challenged my word, and I lost a turn. This was a common occurrence.
I turned back to the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. It was changed to me: it now seemed no more than a cheap bit of lexicographic frippery. Whereas once I had been delighted and amazed by the extent of vocabulary I found in its pages, now I was appalled that they’d left so much out.
Why, for instance, does the Scrabble Players Dictionary list both howf and howff (Scottish words defined as ‘a place frequently visited’), but neglects to include many of the variants that Joseph Wright has in his English Dialect Dictionary, such as houf, hauf, hofe, hoff, houf, houck? I tried to play swad (a bumpkin, or fat person), which appears in most of the dictionaries I own, on three different occasions before I remembered that the Scrabble game wouldn’t recognize it.
When I look in the Scrabble Players Dictionary and find one of my old favorite words, cwm (defined as ‘a cirque’), I’m somehow comforted by the relative unfamiliarity of the cw- beginning, I can’t help but wonder why didn’t they include cweise, cwoint, and cwsynes, as the OED has.
The final straw for me was when the game played ass, and I followed it by adding a Y, which enabled me to create a seven-letter word built off of assy (defined in the OED as ‘asinine’). The game was not impressed. It didn’t recognize assy, so I lost yet another turn.
Some complain that the Scrabble Players Dictionary is too inclusive; I find the opposite to be true. Rather than only let in some of the strange words, they should have opened the floodgates and allowed them all. It has become a game of memory, rather than a game of language.
I’ve banished this dictionary to my closet, next to what I think of as its lexicographical better – the faux Webster’s Dictionary that was published by the Standard Oil Company in 1935, and was handed out for free at gas stations. Maybe it can teach the Scrabble Players Dictionary a thing or two.