At least try to know what you’re talking about

Wednesday, 22 March 2006 — 1:38am | Scrabble

This is going to sound like an excessively vitriolic pants-in-a-twist rants-in-a-twist from some pretentious chap who thinks he’s the only student on this campus qualified to write about Scrabble. But guess what, Chloé Fedio: I am the only student on this campus qualified to write about Scrabble. And I can say from my position of authority, your article sucks. The facts are wrong, the premises are false, the logic is absent and the conclusions are trash.

Since I am an occasional (if dormant) volunteer on the decks of the leaky deathship, I can’t submit this to Letters, so it’s going here instead.

Ms. Fedio’s fundamental misunderstanding (not just about the storied crossword game, but dictionaries, and the English language in general) is in her assertion that the dictionary, and the expansions thereof, are too permissive. They are not. Because they are standardized rulebooks, and restrict the lexicon to a finite functional vocabulary as a subset of an infinite language, Scrabble dictionaries are inherently prescriptivist. In other words, they are overly restrictive, and that has always been the leading motivation for the adoption of expanded dictionaries, be it the OSPD4/OWL2 in North America and Israel or SOWPODS everywhere else. Is this a problem? Yes, if you want to correlate Scrabble-English with practical, meaningful English. But the discrepancy is in the other direction.

Officially-sanctioned Scrabble dictionaries do not apply to living-room players who would rather pander down to some lowest common denominator of words found in “everyday life”. If you’re going to play like that, there’s absolutely no point to playing by the book. The book is there for people who place an importance on consensual, unambiguous adjudication. It is irrelevant to everybody else, and all parties involved in its creation realized that. I’ve spoken to some of them, and I know.

The spurious claim that “the Scrabble dictionary is unique in its acknowledgement of words that most people wouldn’t even consider to be words” is simply bunk. The word list is a proper subset of the union of its authoritative sources. There isn’t a single word in the Scrabble dictionary that you can’t find in the most recent edition of a “real” dictionary (if not several of them), and I’m not talking about your fifth-grade pocket reference abridgment of Webster’s. Validation by existing dictionaries and the lexicographers that worked on them is a necessary precondition for inclusion.

Ms. Fedio asserts that “these additions aren’t contributing to the betterment of the game, or adding to the advantage of skilled players.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Only two posts ago I posited that the dictionary update will have a long-term impact on encouraging risk-taking in the absence of perfect word knowledge. It’s beneficial to all players because they all have equal access to the same augmented arsenal. While specific changes do negate some of the defensive aspects of strategy, the revision is a boon to everything else. There’s no upset balance between word knowledge and strategy, because word knowledge permits strategy. You can’t make parallel plays until you know the twos. You can’t identify a good leave on your rack until you know what kind of high-probability bingos are available. You can’t play unless you are willing to learn, and the first thing you learn is humility in the face of the language.

This sort of “you’re not allowed to know what I don’t know” all amounts to rank anti-intellectualism at its most insidious. It’s not up to some backseat driver with a tragically limited vocabulary to define what makes something a “fake word”. A phony is anything that is not in the accepted edition of the tournament dictionary. That’s the only rule that matters. And you’re not obligated to obey the rule – unless, of course, you want to play with the big boys. The adoption of the OWL2 only affects the club and tournament players, who have already accepted (to paraphrase Edsger Dijkstra) that Scrabble is no more about words than astronomy is about telescopes. The philosophy of the official dictionary – inclusive, but never inclusive enough – has been in place for decades.

Learn how to play the goddamned game and then we’ll talk.

Now, I’m rather busy for the rest of this semester and I don’t have much time to blog, so will Gateway writers please stop baiting me? I appreciate that we’re getting away from the sophomoric ego-stroking of narcissistic sub-apprentice wordsmiths entranced by the sight of their own headboxes who have nothing better to say apart from stomping about in colloquial slop in thick and muddy boots of hyperbolic profanity, but could the ones that have taken the baby step of selecting coherent subject matter do some elementary research before jumping to vacuous conclusions? Or is that too much to ask?

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