by David Bukszpan
Scrabble is a fantastic way to spend the time with family. I remember playing it as a kid on family vacations. I remember playing it with my (nerdy) friends on camping trips. I know that since it was invented in the 30s and especially when it exploded in popularity in the ’50s it’s been a part of life all around the world, especially in countries that use the Latin alphabet.
One of the things I remember best, though, is arguing about whether a word is legitimate or not. Sure, we can look it up, but can we all even agree on which language to use? Do we use Oxford? Collins? Merriam-Webster? Most of them have the same words, but not all of them have all of the same ones, particularly not those that are short or obscure.
This isn’t a recommendation for a dictionary, though. I find dictionaries to be fascinating but I recognise they are not exactly compelling reading for everyone. Is That a Word? by David Bukszpan is the history of the Scrabble lexicon. What makes a word legal in Scrabble? Why are things like “za” (short for pizza) legal, but not proper names? Who even decides what is acceptable?
Is That a Word? is a surprisingly readable history of the game and a fun explanation of why the official word list (the “OWL”) used in tournaments is so odd. The first few chapters discuss the invention of the game, many of the variants and spinoffs, as well as where the official word list came from.
The bulk of the book is really just a list of the stranger words allowable in the game broken down into various categories. Words that seem like they shouldn’t be allowable if you are used to thinking about them in the wrong context. In theory, you shouldn’t be able to use people’s names such as John or Smith, but john (a toilet) and smith (a person who makes horseshoes) are perfectly acceptable.
Of course, you could use the Official Scrabble Dictionary to learn all these words. But that’s just a long list of words and meanings. Is That a Word? is also a long list of words, but with more context and a lot more humour. If you want to be able to dominate in Scrabble and be able to back up your boasting, this is a great way to learn.