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.

Scrabble tiles.
What's in a word?

Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The word blog was coined in the spring of 1999 by Peter Merholz. “I've decided to pronounce the word ‘weblog’ as wee’-blog. Or ‘blog’ for short,” he wrote. The declaration was noticed by tech writer Keith Dawson, who added an entry for blog in his online newsletter Tasty Bits from the Technology Front. “I like that it's roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting,” Merholz told Dawson. “These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking.”

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

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

A few months later, the Web-based writing application Blogger was released. As use of Blogger and similar tools spread, blog crept into public dialogue. Lexicographers began amassing citations from media and popular culture. Blog was Merriam-Webster Inc.’s Word of the Year for 2004 and it was added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition in 2005, as a noun. The six-year span from coinage to inclusion was one of the fastest for the Collegiate. “In the past, it was measured in decades,” Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski says.

Sokolowski and his colleagues are now presiding over a much more rapid coronation of a word: a single addition to the company’s Official Scrabble Players Dictionary that will be picked by the public over the next month. The campaign is being conducted along with Hasbro Inc., which owns Scrabble, and the North American Scrabble Players Association (of which I am a member). Through March 28, people can nominate words for inclusion in the OSPD on a Hasbro page on Facebook. The submissions will be whittled to 16 finalists, which will then face off in a March Madness-style bracket. The winner, to be announced April 10, will be included in an update of the Scrabble dictionary to be published in August.

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So what does this little game of crowdsourced lexicography signify? Is it a relatively harmless publicity stunt aimed at goosing sales of a dictionary and a game, and of increasing awareness of the world of competitive Scrabble? Is it a fun and progressive way of recognizing the changing nature of language and usage in the modern world? Or is it a slippery-slope desecration of the sober and important business of lexicography? It’s all of those things.

First, some background. There’s an assumption that the words in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary are a collection of letter strings invented by the players themselves. They’re not. The OSPD was first published in 1978 and included words two through eight letters long found in any of five standard college dictionaries in print at the time: Merriam-Webster, Webster’s, Funk & Wagnalls, American Heritage, and Random House. The OSPD was updated in 1991, 1996, and 2005. Only Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was used for the 1991 and 1996 updates, while three additional dictionaries were included in the most recent. The new, fifth edition of the OSPD will add words from post-2005 revisions of the Collegiate and two new sources, the Oxford College Dictionary (2nd edition, 2007) and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition, 2005).

The 2005 OSPD update added a total of around 4,000 two- through eight-letter words. The 2014 update will add around 5,000. Even more words will be playable in competitive Scrabble because the game is governed by a separate list that includes offensive terms plus nine- to 15-letter words. Including plurals and inflections, that source, the Official Tournament and Club Word List, is expected to grow by as many as 19,000 words, swelling the total number of playable words in Scrabble in North America to nearly 200,000.

Compiling those words took thousands of hours of work by a committee of Scrabble players who, scouring the source dictionaries page by page, recorded words not in the current lexicon. Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers are editing the list now. The 2005 update included two game-changers: QI (a Chinese life force) and ZA (slang for pizza). This time around, Scrabble will gain four new two-letter words: DA (a father), GI (a karate uniform), PO (a chamber pot), and TE (a note on the musical scale), plus lots of other neologisms, tech words, and slang. (Scrabble players write their words in uppercase.)

Every one of the new words went through a long vetting process. Merriam-Webster’s Sokolowski says words need to meet three criteria before gaining official imprimatur: widespread use, increasing use over time, and an easily discernible definition. Lexicographers take an annual census of words, noting their rising or falling usage. There’s a cautious patience to the process, which is why the addition of words to dictionaries lags their use in culture. “You don’t want to enter a word that ultimately will fall from use,” Sokolowski told me. “We want to see words that are going to have staying power.”

The public is great at coining and popularizing words. But it’s not necessarily good at predicting which ones will stand the test of time. As Sokolowski notes, adding a word “does confer a kind of status” and, as quaint as this might seem in a world of diverse online word look-ups, lexicographers still take seriously the idea that dictionaries should reflect culture over time, which is why they’re particular about what gets in and what doesn’t. Words can be faddish, and not all fads deserve memorializing between the pages. So even though there are citations for twerk dating to the early 1990s, the word might wind up, Sokolowski says, like twist, the dance from the 1950s—a momentary trend.

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