Don't Panic: Proper Nouns Will Not Be Allowed in Scrabble

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April 6 2010 2:36 PM

Don't Panic: Proper Nouns Will Not Be Allowed in Scrabble

A guest post from Slate contributor Stefan Fatsis:

No, world, the rules of Scrabble are not changing.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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Despite what you may have heard this morning on NPR or read on Kotaku or CBS or learned from the BBC or the Telegraph , the companies that own Scrabble the word game to which I have devoted thousands of hours of my adult life have not decided to allow proper nouns to desecrate the 15-by-15 board. But it sure makes for a good story. "Mattel changes the rules of Scrabble for the first time since 1948," the London Times trumpeted. "Beyonce on a triple-word score?" asked the Daily Mail

Put a sock in it. Here's what's actually happening. Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, is introducing a game this summer called Scrabble Trickster. The game will include cards that allow players to spell words backward, use proper nouns, and steal letters from opponents, among other nontraditional moves. The game will not be available in North America, where rival toy company Hasbro owns Scrabble. Hasbro, I'm told, has no plans for a similar variation.

Trickster will enter a pantheon of Scrabble spinoffs. A round of Scrabble Sentence Cube Game , anyone? No? How about Scrabble Overturn ? Or Super Scrabble ? Or Scrabble Up ? These games were all attempts to get a public that loves something classic to buy something else that resembles the classic or at least includes its name and they all pretty much failed. (I won't even bother linking to Simpsons, Shrek, National Parks, Chicago Cubs, and other Scrabble novelty editions.) 

That's the problem with brilliant inventions: A lame knockoff looks like a lame knockoff. New York architect Alfred Butts invented Scrabble in the 1930s and 1940s and it exploded in popularity in the early 1950s. There was a reason: Scrabble is just about perfect. It balances luck and skill, risk and reward. It's knuckle-chucking competitive. And it exploits something fundamental to us all: language. For Hasbro and Mattel, Scrabble is an annuity. But there isn't much room for growth. Spinoffs are a cheap way to gin up some extra sales, especially when you don't need to pull a board game out of the closet, or even rely on the rights-holder, in order to play it online .

So how did this latest games marketing gimmick turn into a global foofaraw? A combination of deceptive corporate shilling and media incompetence. The news of the game, I'm told, first appeared as four lines in a toy industry trade magazine. Then the British media started calling Mattel, and the company appears to have done nothing to disabuse gullible reporters of the idea that a Major Change is occurring. In the Daily Mail , a Mattel spokesman implied that the rules of the game had officially been changed. Mattel would still sell a Scrabble with the "old rules," but this new and improved game would help "level the playing field" between "experienced players with a vast vocabulary" and "players with a love of celebrity or football." Reporters didn't bother calling the Mattel executive in London who oversees competitive Scrabble play outside North America. In the United States and Canada, reporters mostly didn't even make the distinction between Mattel and Hasbro, the game's dueling corporate overlords.

As for the notion of permitting "proper nouns" in Scrabble, well, let's take a peek inside the Official Word List , the rulebook for club and tournament play in North America. JAPAN is in there! Can't be! Well, it's defined in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary as "to coat with a glossy, black lacquer." What about TEXAS? It's the uppermost structure on a steamboat. "Are they going to start allowing words like FRISBEE, KLEENEX, XEROX, FEDEX, and BENADRYL?" my expert-level Scrabble-playing friend David Koenig asked in mock horror on Facebook this afternoon. 

He was kidding. They're all acceptable words in Scrabble, too.

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