Off Piste: New Scrabble Rules

While I’m not great at it, I’m a bit of a Scrabble buff who has played many hundreds of racks. So I’m entitled to an opinion on this forthcoming change in Scrabble rules.


As you’d expect, there are purists who are up in arms. This one via Toby Young at the Telegiraffe:

An act of desperation by the makers, who have presumably noticed that not only can younger people not spell, read or write, they will cry off to their Playstations if asked to cope with the simple and necessary rule prohibiting proper nouns (because, of course, they don’t understand the difference between proper and common nouns and have a functional vocabulary of approximately thirteen nouns, which is pretty limiting in a Scrabble context). The logical next relaxation of this rule would be to allow players to play all seven letters at whim, just so long as the resulting word looks pretty or sounds phonetically interesting in the eyes of the individual. Incidentally, even under the new rules Jay-Z and N-Dubz, as quoted in the article, wouldn’t be acceptable, as there is no hyphen in Scrabble.

It’s unhelpful that a Scrabble maven isn’t also familiar with paragraphs, but no matter. I suppose it takes a certain kind of mind. Autistic, I think.

My take is this: Everyone who plays Scrabble recreationally plays it slightly differently. When I play against my Mum, there’s a 1969 OED we use. Against my woman, it’s the Collins Scrabble Dictionary, and it’s open book with a 90 second limit per turn.

I’ve also tried allowing foreign words, computing acronyms etc.

The only pre-requisite for a game of Scrabble is this: A fair playing field.

My ma neither knows nor approves of the modern Collins Scrabble dictionary, containing as it does, such words as ‘aa’, ‘ka’ and ‘za’, so I play it her way.

I’m at home with the Collins list, because I’m familiar with it and it’s a known, fixed quantity, on paper.

Proper nouns though? It does, more or less, mean that any combination of letters, certainly 4 or 5 together, will be permissible. Clare, Claire, Clair are just 3 permutations of one example.

This is before we’ve considered brand names that are stylised and made phonetic, if exotically so.

And then there are foreign names. The European (Latin) ones are troublesome enough with accents etc., but then you get to proper nouns that come from languages with, for example, Oriental, Cyrillic or Arabic character sets.

We don’t translate names from these languages, we transliterate them, and that usually means a phonetic translation, with regional differences on the phoneme sounds on the up side and the down side. In other words, there can be dozens of spellings of the same basic name – look at how Indian and Pakistani names are rendered into English for an example – there are a dozen variant spelling of each identical sounding name.

So, while variety is the spice of life & all that, a satisfactory game of Scrabble needs rigid boundaries, which means a printed catalogue of permissible words.

Once those boundaries are removed, the game completely loses its point.


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