Ammon Shea is an editor at Merriam-Webster.
After Merriam-Webster on Monday released the sixth edition of “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary,” aficionados might have greeted it with a “yowza” or “whirra,” depending on whether they were happy to see the more than 300 new words admitted for play or in mourning because they thought that, say, the arrival of “ok” was decidedly not okay. “Yowza” and “whirra,” too, are among the new entries.
For 40 years, the dictionary has served as one of the main reference works providing information about which words are permissible to play in Scrabble. (Some tournaments, particularly outside the United States, use a list that includes words from the Collins Dictionary). The Scrabble dictionary was initially compiled by taking eligible words from five college-level dictionaries. Now it includes words recently added to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary online.
Scrabble is, of course, a game of language, but the vocabulary of a high-level competitive game can have as much in common with that of a newspaper as theoretical calculus has with the numbers in your checkbook. “Imipenem,” “agyria” and “exome” — words from science and medicine — are now playable for your Scrabble games, if not your quotidian conversations. Welcome, too, is “aquafaba,” the liquid that results when beans are cooked in water. Hardcore players probably already knew that “wirra,” a variant spelling of the newly added “whirra,” was already allowable.
Capitalizations, abbreviations, acronyms, single-letter words, foreign words and words with hyphens or apostrophes are not eligible for play, but any other established member of the English language is. While in theory it is possible for a word played in Scrabble to be as many as 15 letters long, the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the game includes only those up to eight letters long — the great majority of words played.
These new words are in many ways a snapshot of the changes occurring in English itself. There are words showing orthographic shift, such as the aforementioned “ok” (which in adjective use is now recognized as not needing periods or capital letters) and “dholl” (a dish of lentils and spices, also spelled “dal,” “dahl” and “dhal”). There are terms popularized by the Internet (and lowercase “internet” itself is now fine for Scrabble, even if The Post doesn’t play that way), such as “bloggy” (characteristic of blogging) and “rootkit” (software that allows a person to secretly gain access to a computer).
There are words that have recently shifted from a foreign borrowing to a full member of English, such as “cotija” (a Mexican cheese) and “santoku” (a Japanese knife). Social and political issues are visible here, too; “antifa” (a person or group opposing fascism) and “truther” (one who believes that the truth is being hidden) are now included. “Woke” has been entered as an adjective and is eligible for play in its comparative and superlative forms, “woker” and “wokest.”
Dedicated Scrabble players recognize that knowing which adjectives may be modified with the “un-” prefix can dictate whether you experience the vicious joy of successfully challenging your opponent’s play or the mortification that comes with losing a challenge (and your next turn). Are “unshowiest,” “untrendiest” and “ungaudiest” playable? Yes, yes, and no.
“Ew” and “ok” are the newest additions to the roster of two-letter words, bringing the total to 107, ranging from “aa” (a kind of lava) to “za” (pizza). A familiarity with these can increase players’ chances of putting their letters on the board, building off words from previous rounds. Serious players have almost certainly committed the list of two-letter words to memory, and the truly dedicated have command of all the three-letter specimens, which now number 1,054, as we’ve added “sho” (a former monetary unit of Tibet) and “zen” (a state of calm attentiveness).
There are those who would sniff at words that are variant spellings of foreign monetary units (“qapik,” from Azerbaijan) or recent coinages (“bizjet,” for business jet), arguing that Scrabble should be restricted to words of common usage. But Scrabble is a game, not a term paper or an editorial, and these new words facilitate the game’s playfulness. Furthermore, given that the language has for hundreds of years shifted and turned, spelling words in splendidly improbable fashion, and changing its mind on a whim, few things in life lend themselves to play as readily as the English language itself.