Have Yourself an Ambivalent Little Christmas


The Golden Age of Spam

Will the Real Renaissance Please Stand Up?

My Life of Crime

My Life of Crime, Pt. 2: The War of the Dandelions

Black (and Blue) Friday

Going Home

How Not to Celebrate a Holiday

Traffic Report Fall Down
and Go Boom

O, Holy Weekend

You Mean My Vote Actually Means Something?

Side Disorders

Lessons for Hurricane Preparedness as Taught By Example in Raleigh, North Carolina

You Mean My Vote Actually Means Something?, Pt. 2: Are They Gone Yet?

The Last Reality Show

It Builds Character

Sink the Flu

WTF (in C Major)

Intruder Alert

Kneel before Za

I Got Your Breaking News Right Here, Pal

Christmas in July...or April...or maybe even December


Why I Hate "The Little Drummer Boy"

Kneel before Za

One of the podcasts I listen to every week is PRI's "The World in Words", which (as you can guess from the title) covers language-related news. According to a recent podcast, the official Scrabble dictionary has been updated to include words such as "grrrl", "thang", and "innit". This, predictably, has created tempests in teacups from all over the English-speaking world, as once again people bemoan the fact that language, which has been evolving since before the time of Alfred the Great, hasn't conveniently stayed in place during their own lifetime. I am not going to complain about these new words or say that including them is ruining the official Scrabble dictionary. Not because I think it's silly to get bent out of shape when the language changes (although I do think that). No, I'm not going to complain because I've thought the official Scrabble dictionary has been awful for some time.

I do not play Scrabble very often. But I do play another word game called Quiddler. I won't bore you with the full details, except to say that it's basically the result of a one-night stand between Scrabble and Gin. There are cards with letters on them; each letter has a point value; you try to form words with your cards; when each round is over, you gain points equal to the point values of the cards you used in words, and lose points equal to the point values of the cards you didn't use in words.

Like Scrabble, there can often be disputes over what constitutes an actual word. Like Scrabble, the rules allow for a word to be challenged. Like Scrabble, there has to be a pre-determined agreement on how you will settle challenges, and the best way is to agree on a dictionary.

Also like Scrabble, there can be obvious pitfalls to using a dictionary, because no dictionary is complete. Every once in a while, a dictionary doesn't include a particular word that everyone acknowledges is indeed a word. The group I play with actually had, for a short time, a house rule that said that if everyone knew the word was indeed a word, you couldn't challenge it because the person playing it shouldn't be punished because of a widely-acknowledged failure on the part of the dictionary. (This rule was named after the word whose absence in the dictionary inspired the house rule. Unfortunately, that means we called it the "Clit" rule.) The rule unfortunately had to be abandoned when (this is true) we couldn't agree on what words we all knew were words. Surely, one of us said, everyone knows what "vid" means even if it isn't in the dictionary. I, for one, had never heard of the word.

That is, of course, where the dictionary comes in. And we have (again, this is true) argued over which dictionary to use. I just want to use the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictonary. Someone else in the group, however, has an overwhelming aversion to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Diciontary. Another, a true competitor in the race to be alpha geek if ever there was one, downloaded a dictionary app to his iPhone and wants to use that. And one person wants to use the Scrabble dictionary. And I have a serious aversion to that.

The problem with the Scrabble dictionary is simple: it is full of words which have only been included in order to give Scrabble players words to play when they don't have any words to play. "grrl" (apparently the Scrabble diciontary lists it twice, once with two r's and once with three) is a perfect example. We can argue about its validity as a word in actual writing, but I have no doubt that the primary reason it got included in the Scrabble dictionary was to give players one more word they could use when they had no vowels.

Of particular annoyance to me is the list of (often dubious) two-letter words in the Scrabble dictionary. Words like "aa" (a kind of lava...not just any old lava, mind you, but a specific kind of lava) and "ai" (a specific kind of sloth), which are the vowel-equivalents of "grrl". Also particularly galling to me is "za". This is apparently slang for pizza. Not once in my life have I ever heard anyone refer to pizza as "za". I've heard it referred to as "cheesy goodness"; I've heard it referred to as "the breakfast of champions"; I've heard it deliberately mispronounced as "piz uh". But not once has anyone I know ever felt that the two syllables in "pizza" were so cumbersome to say that one of them needed to be jettisoned. I understand that there may be people in other parts of the country who use the word routinely, and if they want to use it when playing Quiddler, that's fine. But in this area, it's every bit as foreign a word as varveklis.* It should, in my opinion, be no more allowable than varveklis, particularly since the damn word is worth 16 points. If you're going to play a bullshit word that no one ever actually uses, at least have the decency to pick one that's worth five points or less.

My fellow players, needless to say, disagree. They say that the only enforceable way to restrict what words can be used is to agree on a dictionary. They say I myself use words I would never say in conversation. I don't buy the second argument. (For the record, I own an mbira. I really do use the word.) But I will grudgingly concede the first. So I have agreed to go by the dictionary, even when they use the Scrabble dictionary with all of its ridiculous words.

It's not all bad. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to use "za" myself. Twice. In the same hand. It propelled me into the lead.

After all, if you can't beat 'em...beat 'em, right?

* Lithuanian for "icicle", in case you're wondering.

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