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Every year the world’s major dictionaries unveil their new offerings, adding words that reflect new trends, technologies and fads. But Scrabble has long been a bastion of tradition.
Scrabble dictionaries are updated only every five to 10 years, and words vying for a coveted position between “aa” (a pointy rock found in Hawaii) and “zyme” (something that causes zymotic disease), must first go through an exhaustive process. That is, until this week.
Scrabble is launching a Facebook contest to determine which words get into the next edition of the hallowed Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. People simply nominate their words before March 28, and on April 2, Hasbro plans to unveil 16 finalists in a March Madness-style bracket.
So how is the Scrabble world reacting to this breach of Scrabble protocol? Here & Now’s Robin Young checks in with John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association and director of the oldest sanctioned Scrabble club in North America, in Toronto.
On reaction from the Scrabble community
“My email inbox has been overflowing ever since we put out the announcement. My phone has been ringing off the hook. This is huge news within the Scrabble community, because we’ve never done anything like this before.”
“The competitive players within the North American Scrabblers Association treat it with a proprietary sense. It is their own. It’s tools with which they play their game. And so when I went to the local club last night to play some games against the Canadian champion, I wasn’t sure whether I was gonna get tarred and feathered, or hoist up on everybody’s shoulders and paraded around the library, or what. As it turned out, the one thing all Scrabble players have in common with each other is that they really want to spend all of their time playing Scrabble and nothing else. So I made an announcement, I asked for questions, and there weren’t any. It was just time to play Scrabble.”
On the evolution of language
“Each generation has its own version of language. I’m heavily involved with School Scrabble. I’m going to be helping around the National School Scrabble Championship next month. And when I see kids that are of that age range, grade 4 to 8, who are playing Scrabble, it’s like they’re talking using a different language, and I have to keep telling them, ‘No, LOL is not a word, OMG is not a word.'”
On how the new dictionary highlights those changes
“It brings attention to the way words come into the language, right? Words entering the language, it is a kind of popularity contest, because words — you or I could invent a word, but if nobody else used it, it wouldn’t make it into the dictionary. But enough people use it in enough different contexts, then it’ll make its way into a college dictionary, and then into the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, but this is a 20-year process. This year, for the first time, thanks to Hasbro and Merriam-Webster, we’re accelerating, we’re compressing that process, that one lucky word can make it into the dictionary within a one-month span.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, there are also concerns about the new Scrabble brackets. People, this is serious. Let's back up. Most dictionaries update every year to reflect new words. The Scrabble dictionary is updated only once or twice a decade, and even then words have to fight for a coveted spot between aa - that's two A's, the name of a pointy rock in Hawaii - and zyme, something that causes zymotic disease.
But now Scrabble is adding words, and for the first time, Hasbro, the Rhode Island-based company that owns Scrabble, is launching a Facebook contest in which anyone can nominate new words. And then on April 2 there will be a March Madness-style bracket to choose just one.
John Chew is co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association and director of the oldest sanctioned Scrabble club in North America. He's in Toronto, and he joins us from the CBC studios in Ottawa. John, just how big is this? How are players reacting?
JOHN CHEW: Hi, Robin. My email inbox has been overflowing ever since we put out the announcement. My phone has been ringing off the hook. This is huge news within the Scrabble community because we've never done anything like this before.
YOUNG: Well, we understand it's, you know, some people are outraged because, you know, Scrabble-playing is serious. There's a ranking system. And now any old word - it could be selfie - could make it.
CHEW: It could even be selfie, yeah. This is true. And to be sure, we're talking about the Scrabble dictionary that everybody uses, Merriam-Webster's official Scrabble players dictionary. But the competitive players within the North American Scrabble Players Association treat it with a proprietary sense that it's their own. It's the tools with which they play their game.
And so when I went to the local club last night to play some games against the Canadian champion, I wasn't sure whether I was going to get tarred and feathered or hoisted up on everybody's shoulders and paraded around the library or what. As it turned out, the one thing that all Scrabble players have in common with each other is that they really want to spend all of their time playing Scrabble and nothing else.
So I made an announcement. I asked for questions. There weren't any. It was just time to play Scrabble. So the opinion has ranged a wide gamut. I have received some, you know, not quite death threats in my inbox, but...
CHEW: ...have-you-taken-leave-of-your-senses-type email. But I think it's actually a very good idea to do it this way because it highlights - it brings attention to the way that words come into the language, right? The words entering the language, it is a kind of popularity contests because words - you or I could invent a word. But if nobody else used it, it wouldn't make it into a dictionary.
But if enough people use it in enough different contexts and it'll make its way into a college dictionary and then into the official Scrabble players dictionary, and you know, but this is about a 20-year process. This year, for the first time, thanks to Hasbro and Merriam-Webster, we're accelerating, we're compressing that process so that one lucky word will get to make it into the dictionary within, you know, within a one-month span.
YOUNG: And maybe bring more younger players in, is what you're saying, because right now you guys have all memorized the top 20 words like muzjiks, with a Z and a J, Russian peasants under the czar. It's the highest possible opening play.
CHEW: Of course.
YOUNG: You all know that, these obscure words. But somebody coming into the game for the first time maybe doesn't. So maybe they may be more likely to know iPhone.
CHEW: Oh, sure. And, of course, the language evolves. Each generation has its own version of language. I'm heavily involved with school Scrabble. I'm going to be helping run the National School Scrabble Championship next month. And when I see kids that are of that age range, grade four to eight, who are playing Scrabble, it's like they're talking and using a different language.
And I have to keep telling them no, no, no. LOL is not a word. OMG is not a word. And, you know, I'm probably not even picking the right examples here because my idea of young folks' language is, you know, what it was 20 years ago.
YOUNG: What is - John Chew, what is your favorite word?
CHEW: My favorite word, I don't, you know, it's whatever word I scored most with most recently.
YOUNG: What was that?
CHEW: My favorite word from last night, I played it against a former world champion. I had A, E, L, L, T, U, blank on my rack, and I turned the blank into a U. And I played ululate, which means, of course, to scream in a particular way. And the - Adam Logan, my opponent, made fun of my play by briefly ululating and disturbing the calm in the room.
YOUNG: Ululating, right. Beautiful. Is it true, though, as we look at this, is za now already accepted as slang for pizza?
CHEW: Za is already in the dictionary. It has been since the last edition. And, you know, it's an example of a regionalism, like aa - or it's specifically - it's specific to a particular demographic, like the word aa. I'm sure it's common if you're in Hawaii and you have to step on aa whenever you walk across a volcanic field.
CHEW: Za - if you're ordering pizza all the time and you're a college student and you can't be bothered to say two syllables, then za it is.
YOUNG: It's 11 points. John Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association. We'll link listeners to this new contest. You have to nominate a word by March 26. We'll put that at hereandnow.org. John, thanks so much.
CHEW: Thanks, Robin.
YOUNG: Jeremy, another great one: airy(ph).
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
YOUNG: Oh, yeah.
HOBSON: That's going to get you a lot of points.
YOUNG: You'll get the Q and the U out of the way.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.