I’ve got a story in the current issue of the New Republic arguing that Scrabble has become one of the sternest arbiters of what, exactly, we consider a word in English. In a nut, once a word graduates into a legal Scrabble word, it goes from mere slang or foreign term onto lists that thousands of people memorize. Any Scrabble word immediately becomes required reading for certain nerds. Until then, it’s a danger almost to know it — to play a word that’s off-list is asking for your opponent to challenge it and boot it off the board.
The exceptions are profanities and words that Hasbro has judged offensive. Scrabble is a terrifically rigid game at the tournament level and on the computerized versions (the EA app is my time-killing phone game of choice). But there’s no reason your house rules should abide by the dictionary purge. The game that helps pump blood through the language is too namby-pamby, and is often best when transgressed.
John D. Williams Jr.’s new memoir, Word Nerd, sparked this discussion. He was overseeing the North American Scrabble Association when the game’s manufacturer realized it had a naughty-word problem. A couple of women playing in suburban Washington DC stumbled across the word kike during a game in the early ‘90s. “Understandably, they were appalled,” he writes. “And, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up scenario, one of the two women was a Holocaust survivor.” Hasbro eventually expunged a ton of ugly terms. Farewell, blowjob, darkies, and gringo. We’ll miss you, bullshitting, gangbangs, dickhead, and hardasses. We hardly knew ye, wetbacks, redneck, wanking, and fuckoffs.
You don’t have to abide by such fair-mindedness at your kitchen table. Several fantastic words were lost in the big purge — really crummy things to say to a person, but fantastic for getting out of jams. I’d never use wop or jew (as a verb, it’s the domain of ugly history and casual bigots) or lez in public … but on a Scrabble board, goodness, they do make handy weapons. Every player must answer for him- or herself: How badly do I want to win? Would you play fatties or faggot, still-legal thanks to its bundle-of-sticks definition, in mixed company? The purge took with it cunt and feminazis and ballsiest, but you could still beat your girlfriend’s mother by laying titties across the board. Would you, given the chance?
Any tussle needs these ground rules. Not every fistfight devolves into kicking and biting. It’s civil of Scrabble to trim the possibility of offending the bejesus out of your opponent. On the app, I once laid down the (since-purged) word yid, a derisive slang for a Jewish person, only to see my opponent message: “What the hell?” I thought the guy was just marveling that we could still play slurs, so I replied, intending a shrug: “Yeah, but whaddayagonnado?” This guy clearly read that more tauntingly than I’d meant. “I’m going to beat you, is what,” came the reply. And suddenly we had a hot match on our hands. He started kicking my ass, I came back to beat him, and we eventually took it to best two-out-of-three before parting, not particularly amicably. It was only after I’d played yid that I noticed his handle contained what was probably his last name: Levin.
Now we don’t need to get manners mixed up in this. As well we shouldn’t, for they only get in the way. Williams wrote about a situation in a long-ago tournament in Tennessee that underscored the clash of politesse and Scrabble:
As the story went, a young man in his thirties was beginning a game against a woman in her eighties. His absolute best opening play was the word SHITTY. He stared at the word on his rack, then at the sweet face and carefully coiffed white hair of his opponent. He agonized. He looked back at her face, back at his rack. He just couldn’t play the word. Instead the young man made a much safer play for far fewer points. … Across the board, the older woman studied his play for a minute or so. Then she threw down the word FUCKERS for 80-something points, shrugged, and happily wrote down her score.
It’s wise of the game to keep yid and wop out of tournaments. But if you clear your rack with fuckers at my table, bold sir, I will not appeal to the dictionary to overturn its legality. I will consider those your points rightly earned, with what I’m sure is, from time to time, even the queen’s English.