Bestie? Ew? Twerk? Inside the Contest to Add a New Word to the Scrabble Dictionary.

The art of play.
March 14 2014 7:13 PM

Bestie, Ew, Slumdog, Twerk

Inside the contest to add a new word to the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

(Continued from Page 1)

And that’s the risk with Hasbro’s new-word contest. “Scrabble makers invite players to stick some bullshit word in the dictionary,” the Onion’s A.V. Club headlined. Voters could elect a word—possibly twerk—that might never reach the magic threshold lexicographers desire. It could wind up playable forever in Scrabble but not findable in any of its dictionary sources, a collection of scarlet letters that at once besmirch the art of lexicography and make a mockery of the process by which words enter the game.

Scrabble players are divided. One the one hand, they understand that Hasbro is a company that wants to generate publicity for its brand and sell more boards and apps. An occasional descent into cheesy marketing is consistent with most corporate retail values, and it’s certainly not foreign to Scrabble. Plus, while grounded in lexicography, the Scrabble word list contains plenty of weird-looking letter strings. “Obviously they are linked to the language, but so few of the words that the top players routinely use are words that normal people use in normal conversation that they might as well be random words,” a player named Winter wrote in a lively discussion on Facebook. “So I would add CROMULENT and EMBIGGEN in a FLIVJART.”

On the other hand, competitive Scrabble players have long viewed the game as less like Monopoly and more like chess. Letting the public pick a new word is akin to letting it pick a new Monopoly token, a cheap gesture that detracts from the seriousness of the game. What next? Hyphens and apostrophes? And while the Scrabble word list is by no means sacrosanct, at least it’s determined by an objective process, one that’s being subverted here. “My ‘values’ on something like this involve establishing logically defensible baseline principles and then consistently applying those principles, not opening things up to the masses indiscriminately for (what looks a lot like) a publicity stunt,” my friend Dan Wachtell wrote on Facebook. “Aren't we the ones who value the integrity of the dictionary?”

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But Scrabble organizers say that if a word contest helps move players away from their Words With Friends app and into Scrabble clubs and tournaments, fantastic. And, as one official told me, it’s only one word. Competitive players are posting on Facebook words they’ve wanted to see in the dictionary, like injera, an Ethiopian bread, ribeye, nucleic, seedings, and ch (an archaic English dialect form of I playable outside of North America, where the game is owned by Mattel). The lay public is suggesting lots of Urban Dictionary entries and leetspeak, like dingledorf, emotypo, and pwn. It’s offering words already acceptable in Scrabble, like APP, WAZOO, BISCUITY, GUESSTIMATE, and EVITE (which means to avoid, accent on the second syllable); words that have been added to the Collegiate since the last OSPD update, including ACAI, BROMANCE, CHILLAX, and GOOGLE; and words that I’m guessing will be in this year’s Collegiate update and therefore excluded from the contest, like selfie and hashtag.

Safeguarding against quone or kwyjibo winning what amounts to an online popularity contest are Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers. The 16 words chosen for the final tournament have to be playable under the rules of Scrabble, so forget about OK and TV (abbreviations) or Zamboni (proper noun).* They also have to meet Merriam-Webster’s internal standards, with plenty of existing citations. That means the finalists are likely to be on their way to inclusion in the Collegiate dictionary someday. “We’re looking for real words here,” Sokolowski says.

I read through all of the entries to date. Once you cull the ineligible words and the nonsense, the candidate pool is a lot smaller than you might think. Here’s a possible Sweet 16: bestie, blondie, derp, ew, internet, janky, min, ohmigod, onesie, slumdog, spork, squee, twerk, ur, whassup/whazzup, zen.

If you want the new word to be both lexicographically defensible and highly useful in Scrabble, vote for ew or zen. The latter has until now been excluded as a proper noun, but Sokolowski says there are plenty of lowercase citations. “It’s on the shortest of the short lists,” he says. But he’s even more excited about ew, for which citations go back to the 1970s. “It’s absolutely valid. It’s an interjection with a real meaning. It’s used in lots of sources. It’s a great example of the kind of word that we watch closely for entry.”

As a bonus, if ew wins, Sokolowski says, Scrabble is likely to get eww. And maybe euw and ewww too.

Correction, March 14, 2014: This article previously and incorrectly listed Dumpster as an unplayable word in Scrabble. (Return.)

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

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