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How to Have Fun with Scrabble
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  18 Sep 2008

Scrabble is fundamentally totalitarian and colonial; it presupposes exactly the same attitude about language that has kept oppressed the poor and the culturally marginal.

The idea of Scrabble is full of potential; the game's beauty is contained within simple letters and simple lines.  But Scrabble's reliance upon the dictionary ignores the creativity inherent in the formation of words and the play that characterizes our linguistics.

The dictionary does not reflect most of the slang and informal forms that comprise popular speech.  It does not reflect the accepted forms of Black English Vernacular, nor Spanglish.  It assumes not only that a language can be codified, and that the dictionary can remotely keep up with linguistic change, but that the only right English is the Queen's English -- or at least not ghetto English.  We only have to remember the massive number of words coined by Shakespeare or Milton, if not the massive linguistic and cultural permeation of hip-twisting and soul-singing black Americans, to realize that the dictionary at best reacts to language.  The dictionary is a foul thing.  It is the excrement a language produces.  We can, of course, analyze that shit to learn about the organism -- but that organism, like our language, is a living thing.  A dictionary is a useful tool, but one progresses beyond it.  The great problem with Scrabble is that it ties itself to the dictionary -- and thus to the dictionary's problems.  Bad enough that this is a great intellectual and cultural offense, but this problem has a worse effect:  it makes Scrabble boring.

We can understand the reason for this gross and offensive error on Scrabble's part:  it's comfortable, having that dictionary as a basis.  It feels solid, objective even if slightly flawed, slightly slow.  But we know this to be a lie, an intoxicating illusion.  Yet the alternative -- a game apparently without a foundation -- seems maddening.  But it isn't.  In fact, liberating Scrabble from the dictionary creates a very different game altogether -- one defined by creativity and human interaction rather than silent competition.

Players now have to agree unanimously on what words to accept.  There is no dictionary to flee toward, no divine source of inherited wisdom to define and curtail action.  There is no second-guessing on the part of players uncertain their word, common though it may be, will have a single tiny listing in the holy book.  Players can use foreign words.  After all, every foreign word becomes English simply with italics (or underline for the less stylish).  Players now become creative, making up new words.  I'm not talking about utterly new roots here; I'm talking about words that proceed on the same principle as "tarped," which we can all understand as a shorter and less awkward alternative to "tarp-covered."  But, no matter what a player submits as his word, that player will have to explain his word, strange creation that it might be, to the others.  Either education, in the case of a foreign word, or humor, in the case of a strange word, results.  A few other examples should illustrate this point.

There are a number of short prefixes and suffixes that can easily be added, using the Scrabble letters, to virtually any word.  The suffix "ing" is obvious enough, but its building materials are rather hard to acquire.  But "a" and "e" and "i" can each be used as a prefix:  "a" (as in "amoral") meaning not against but without, having nothing to do with; "e" (as in "e-mail" or "e-business"), a now common abbreviation for "electronic"; and "i" for "internet" (as in Apple's "iMac" and "iBook").

Scrabble changes as a result.  Simply adding an "a" or "e" or "i" to the longest word on the board, particularly if that added one letter falls on a "double word score" space, may easily be a player's best move.  Words change and deform, their meanings becoming increasingly arcane and amusing.  Almost every player's turn can easily receive the fifty-point bonus for laying down all letters in one's possession.  Scores shoot through the roof; in this sense, everyone appears to win and competition is de-emphasized in favor of creativity and humor.

In the first such game of Scrabble that I played, I laid down the word "SKANK," checking that the other player was familiar with this (slang) term for a scummy, dirty, and generally loose girl.  He was -- so I added "NEO" as a prefix, using all my letters.  "Man," I explained in a different voice and with wild gesticulations, "I ain't no skank of the eighties.  I'm a neoskank.  I skank and I skank and I skank -- and I use my palm-held computer to help me.  That's right."

In a later move, I added "ANTI" and "E" to the beginning and "ER" to the end -- using all my tiles again.  Explaining this one was more difficult.  "Look, 'er' is a perfectly acceptable suffix to anything.  You have the action of 'run' and you have a 'runner' -- someone who does this thing.  Now, I see that that's a verb.  But you have, say, 'retail' -- which is a thing, an idea -- and you have a 'retailer' -- meaning 'one who practices retail.'  A 'skanker' is not just a skank but someone who practices skanking as a lifestyle, someone for whom skankery is their life, their occupation, their activity."  It took some convincing, but he bought it.  Then I explained that an e-neoskanker was someone who practiced skankery online, say in chat rooms and the like.  "I'm not a skank -- or a neoskank -- but my online persona?  Girl, she is definitely one e-neoskanker!"  And an anti-e-neoskanker is clearly someone who is against e-neoskankers.  "Man, I know it's popular, but I don't like those e-neoskankers -- always skanking around those chatrooms.  It's not enough that they're neoskanks -- they could do that down at the mall.  Noooo, they have to be e-neoskankers and do it in my chatrooms."  It took a good deal of theatrics and much laughing, but I finally convinced him.  The letters on the board were "ANTIENEOSKANKER."

In one of the last turns, when the flow of letters has dried up, one of us added a "y" to make "ANTIENEOSKANKERY" -- the state or condition of being against those neo-skanks who operate electronically.  "As a modern skank who's internet-savvy, I have to say that I object to all this anti-e-neoskankery that I'm hearing."  Also as one of these final moves (though, even if the 'y' were in hand, in a separate move to maximize points), one of us simply added an "A" to make "AANTIENEOSKANKERY."  "Yeah, I hear a lot of you modern, online skanks complain about anti-e-neoskankery, but I don't care -- I'm a-anti-e-neoskankery."

This is all incredibly fun with a good drink and a good friend -- or a potential friend.  One learns a lot about a person through watching his or her mind unfold this way.  One certainly learns more than their ability to form letters into vocabulary words, or how many hours they've put into reading books on Scrabble, which tell the reader rarely-known words that happen to be in the dictionary but find no usage outside of Scrabble.

Scrabble formerly reflected the 18th-Century notion that language could be codified, set in stone, frozen in time, and recorded as such -- that English could become as unchanging as Latin.  The rules (or rather the arules) I'm outlining here only make Scrabble reflect an e-culture, one where rapid change is assumed and even celebrated, where words such as "e-tailer" (for "electronic retailer") come to popular attention and gain general usage in the mainstream press before most have even heard the word for the first time.  Our current (meaning both present and electric) culture not only rewards linguistic creativity but requires it:  we hear news reports using words like "e-tailing" that require us to deduce meaning.  What I'm advocating here is an organic Scrabble, a game that brings out idiosyncrasy instead of suppressing it, a game that brings people together through discussion and debate of each choice, a game that reflects the ambiguity of language and enhances the confidence and fun of manipulating words, and a game where the grid of the board becomes a terrain for creativity rather than a series of rigid boxes with the driest of rules.  What I'm talking about is a Scrabble liberated from the dictionary and bound instead to language as it really is.  What I'm talking about is NEOSCRABBLE, POMO Scrabble, IWORLD and EERA Scrabble.  What I'm talking about is ANTIDEINDIVIDUAL Scrabble, a Scrabble for ANTICULTURISMERS.

What I'm talking about is a lot of fun.

This essay was originally published online on 19 January 2001.

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Other Essays by Julian Darius:
Yellow Sign Series in the Vatican Museum
Feminism was a Response to Dishwashers
Life on Gor (Page 1 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 2 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 3 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 4 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 5 of 6)
Life on Gor (Page 6 of 6)
The Danger of Personality Tests
The Party’s Raging but the Messiah Stands Us Up
How to Have Fun with Scrabble
Love the Good Women, Boys, Love the Good Women
Against Gardner
I Need a Secretary
Cast Away Review