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.

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?”

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.)