Over the years, as family and friends became aware of my Scrabble obsession, they’d occasionally ask me questions about the game and its rules. Among the most common of these has been “Why are foreign words allowed in Scrabble? I thought we were playing in English!”
The simple answer is “they’re not.” Look at the instructions on the inside of the box and one of the things you’ll notice is a clarification that words that must begin with a capital letter and words in foreign languages are not permitted.
Well, sort of.
For a long time, I thought I had this explanation down pat. Just because a word may begin or often begins with a capital letter doesn’t exclude it from Scrabble if there is also another meaning of the word that does not require it to start with a capital. For example, it is true that “Jack” (with a capital J) is a personal name. However, one can also jack up one’s car to change a tire or draw the jack of clubs from a deck of cards. Neither of these uses of the word “jack” requires a capital letter, and the word is therefore acceptable in Scrabble. (I won’t even start getting into the compound uses of the word, such as jackrabbit, jack o’ lantern, jack in the box, jack cheese and even the archaic jackanapes.)
Foreign words, I’d explain, are not acceptable in Scrabble if the exact same thing has an English equivalent. For example, gato and caballo are not acceptable, because these Spanish words have the English equivalent of “cat” and “horse.” However, if a foreign word has no equivalent in English, and the word has therefore been widely incorporated into the English language, then its use is permissible in Scrabble. One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the word “taco.” Sure, it’s a Spanish word, but there is no other way to precisely describe the concept using an English word. Thus, “taco” has been adopted into the English language; most people know exactly what you mean when you say you’re going out for tacos. The word “taco” has been found in the Scrabble dictionary for years.
Another example is the French word eau. Yes, it is the equivalent of the English word “water” and one might therefore expect that it would be impermissible in Scrabble. However, it is used to describe fragrances such as eau de cologne and eau de toilette, as well as a type of brandy known as eau de vie. And, yes, in Scrabble it is pluralized with an X, just as it is in French. While some will argue that one can just say “cologne” or “toilet water,” aficionados of Chanel and others of that ilk are quite familiar with the complete phrase. Thus, the powers that be saw fit to include it in the Scrabble lexicon.
But that was then. Ever since the latest version of the Scrabble dictionary went into use in tournament play in March, all bets are off. There no longer seems to be any rhyme or reason for the scores of foreign words that have now squeezed themselves into the pages of the Scrabble dictionary.
The official reason for this, I am told, is that these foreign words may be found in more than one of the major dictionaries of the English language. Supposedly, if it’s good enough to get into standard English dictionaries, it’s good enough to be permissible in Scrabble.
I beg to differ.
In my opinion, which counts for exactly nothing, just because one prefers to use a foreign word rather than its English equivalent doesn’t justify its inclusion in the Scrabble dictionary.
Lately, I have found myself particularly frustrated with the many Yiddish words that have found their way into the Scrabble dictionary. This is somewhat ironic, as I have more than a passing familiarity with that wonderful language due to my eastern European, Jewish heritage. I rejoice in the fact that Leo Rosten and others have published books celebrating the Yiddish language. But that doesn’t mean that they belong in the Scrabble dictionary when they have clear English equivalents, just because other dictionaries have chosen to include them.
For example, kvetch has been in the Scrabble lexicon for a while, when it just means to complain, bitch or bellyache. Now, with the new Scrabble dictionary, even the Yiddish word zeda and some of its derivatives are permissible. It just means “grandfather” or “grandpa.”
Perhaps I just need to stop kvetching and recognize that Scrabble has gone multicultural. Just don’t ask me why, if foreign words are now permissible in Scrabble, gato and caballo will get challenged off the board. I have no idea how to answer that one anymore.
Except, that is, to say that the Scrabble dictionary has gone crazy.
Tournament update: I have been losing games left and right by huge margins, but I also had a few big wins. My record currently stands at 8 wins and 6 losses, which has moved me down to the bottom half of the pack. My spread is somewhere around -160, which effectively exposes me as the rank amateur that I am. I have to keep reminding myself that I enjoy spending a lot of money for superior players to beat up on me for five days. Oy vey. (Oy is good in Scrabble, vey is not. Yet.)