For newcomers, the single most intimidating aspect of club and tournament play is probably the almost immediate assault on the boundaries of their vocabularies. A common reaction from first-time players is the plaintive cry “That CAN’T be a word!”
I doubt you’ll find a club or tournament player in the world who has not experienced exactly the same disbelief over the acceptability of a word early in his or her club experience. I certainly did when I started. And now, after years of playing in clubs and tournaments, I have to admit that, occasionally, I still do. The thing to remember is that each and every one of those players survived to play another day. So will you.
So where do the words we use in organized Scrabble come from?
The English language is a living thing, encompassing all aspects of life, expanding even into those areas that you and I might never encounter anywhere but on a Scrabble board. Chances are that words like “XI” (the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet), “SCLAFF” (to strike or scrape the ground with a golf club before hitting the ball) or “PATACA” (a monetary unit of Macao equal to 100 “AVOS”) don’t show up often in your daily conversations, but each of these words and many, many other unusual words can be found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition, a highly reputable work and one of the five dictionaries used in formulating the official reference dictionaries and word lists of the National Scrabble Association (NSA).
The point I’m trying to make is that those exotic words actually do appear in popular dictionaries, and most of us did not know them on our first night of club play, either. Give it a little time and maybe some study, and you’ll pick them up just as readily as the rest of us do.
Many Scrabble games played around the kitchen table use the family dictionary to decide the fate of any questionable words. But dictionaries vary greatly from small paperbacks with limited entries to massive unabridged tomes with hundreds of thousands of entries. In other words, what is an acceptable word for the Jones family might not be acceptable for the Smiths.
In 1975, the game’s manufacturer at that time, Selchow & Righter, decided to publish an Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary (OSPD) to provide a universal reference for judging the validity of words played. With a spectrum of possibilities ranging from the limited range of everyday English to the less restrictive confines of the unabridged dictionaries, they charted a path through the middle ground.
It was decided that in order for a word to be listed in the OSPD, it had to appear in 2 of the 5 most popular American dictionaries of the time. The five chosen were:
Published in 1978, the OSPD included over 100,000 words and provided an excellent reference for resolving disputes over words.
Since then, the OSPD has been updated three times with new words having to appear in any one of the source dictionaries used. The OSPD2 appeared in 1991 and used the then current editions of four of the same five dictionaries (less Funk & Wagnalls). The OSPD3 was published in 1995 with updates from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and a decision to exclude words considered vulgar or offensive in order to provide a more suitable reference work for the growing School Scrabble program. The OSPD4 has been available in bookstores since mid-2005 with new words drawn from current editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Random House Collegiate Dictionary, Webster's New World Dictionary, and The American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary. OSPD4 continues the practice of excluding words considered vulgar or offensive.
In 1997, the National Scrabble Association (NSA) published The Official Tournament and Club Word List (OWL) to provide a more efficient and complete reference work for judging challenges at tournaments. The OWL includes all of the words (including the vulgar and offensive ones) of up to nine letters (plus any longer inflected words) eligible for play in NSA-sanctioned clubs and tournaments. All words are listed alphabetically without the rudimentary definitions included in the OSPDs. References for this work were OSPD2, OSPD3, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition. The updated OWL2 was published in early 2006 and is currently available to NSA members and official for club and tournament play effective March 1, 2006. New words for this work are drawn from current editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Random House Collegiate Dictionary, Webster's New World Dictionary, and The American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary.
*It is important to note that current editions of the OSPD and the OWL do contain some words that, while they were present in earlier referenced editions of the source dictionaries, might no longer be present in current editions of those same dictionaries.
The NSA introduced a new work in 2003: The Official Long Words List (OLWL). The OLWL includes all the acceptable words of 10 to 15 letters that had not been previously published in the OWL. The OLWL replaced the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition as the official reference for judging the acceptability of these longer words for NSA-sanctioned tournament and club play as of June 1, 2003.
Merriam-Webster’s, Random House, Webster’s, American Heritage—this is where our Scrabble words come from. So if someone asks you if your word is in a "real" dictionary, you can answer “Yes,
indeed it is in "real" dictionaries.”
And if, someday in the future, you happen to hear a new player say, “That CAN’T be a word!”, just remember - you were there once. . . . and it really didn’t turn out so badly after all.
We’ll see you across the board.