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The meaning of Scrabble

© PHOTODISCIf you’re a cryptic crossword devotee, try this one: “Sheds light in elbow attachment”. Answer later …

Instead of crosswords, some people reach for the Scrabble board at Christmas and gather the family round for hours of festive wordplay.

Although most of us see Scrabble as a harmless way to pass an hour or two, others take it more seriously. Much more seriously. Last month, the Scrabble World Championship was held in Malaysia, and was won by Pakorn Nemitrmansuk of Thailand, who defeated Nigel Richards from New Zealand by three games to one in the final.

In the final game of that final, 20 words went onto the board. Several of them were not even in my passive vocabulary, let alone my active vocabulary.

Three that I don’t think I’d ever come across before were:

  • Jor, which went unchallenged. It’s not in the OED, but it’s “allowed” by the official Scrabble dictionary, which simply lists words without definitions, so I’ve no idea what it means.
  • Tiglic, which is a chemical adjective, and describes substances associated with croton oil.
  • Bowat, which is a Scottish word for a small lantern.

A recent item on the radio made the point that despite being word based, Scrabble has absolutely nothing to do with what words mean. Furthermore, many of the best players do not speak English well enough to hold a fluent conversation. They have learnt words by rote and can bring them into play because they fit the necessary pattern. Even more surprising, perhaps, was the notion that knowing the English language could even be a handicap rather than a benefit.

The irrelevance of meanings was confirmed in an interview given by one of the top British players, Mikki Nicholson, who said “I know tens of thousands of words. The definition is an irrelevance. They’re just tools for scoring points.” Nicholson’s regime includes regular training, not on a Scrabble board but using a computer to set himself anagrams that he can resolve. It is, he says, “much more mathematical than people realise”.

One of the competitors said that she had successfully “learned” all the allowable two-letter words, of which there are more than 100. OK – I can think of a few: of, in, to, by, at, on, up, or… all allowed. Strangely, OK is not allowed, but ob, od, oe, oi, om, oo, op, os, ou, ow are permissible. Any Australians out there might be disappointed to know that Oz is not allowable in Scrabble.

Cryptic crosswords by contrast, are all about meaning. Cruciverbalists are dependent on knowing the meaning – and more often the multiple meanings – of the words used in the clues (though not necessarily the answers themselves). Sometimes, a solver can be sure of having arrived at the right answer without knowing the meaning of the answer because the clue leads only to one possible outcome. For example, the clue at the beginning of this post points towards the word bowat, because a bowat sheds light, and “in” suggests that the letters are to be found within “elbow attachment”.

I mention this simply because bowat was the last word placed on the board by Pakorn Nemitrmansuk, and it won him the World Scrabble Championship – whether he knew what it meant or not. Congratulations Pakorn.

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Stephen Bullon


  • I’m a real fan of Scrabble though not terribly good at it I must add. I’ve never been able to bring myself to learning the two-letter words by heart and hearing the advice of people who beat me regularly that is one of the first things you have to do to be able to win. Last year I was treated to a 365-day Scrabble calendar by a friend and I was astounded by the number of words I didn’t know! My only consolation when I play Scrabble (mostly on Facebook) is that a majority of people play it for fun and not competitively, which means that if you put down a good word which also scores high, it’s always appreciated.

  • For what it’s worth, I thought the light-shedding answer was “watt,” which is also in “elbow attachment.” Of course, in a crossword, you’d count the lights to see how many letters you needed. Still, I now have “bowat” as a new word in my lexicon – can’t wait to try it out in the pub 😉

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