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Thang, Grrl, Innit and Facebook – the enduring popularity of Scrabble

A lot of us enjoy words. Speaking them, hearing them, reading them, writing them, learning all about them and playing with them.

But let’s face it, no matter how great you imagine your vocabulary to be there are just some words you’ll never get the chance to use. It’s highly doubtful you ever bought a Kat at a Suq, for example. Unless you’re Arabic and into gardening, those words probably aren’t relevant to you.

That is, of course, unless you’re a Scrabble enthusiast. For they are the unsung heroes of the lexicon, the unassuming ninjas of the noun, the kind of people for whom reading the dictionary is a pleasurable pastime.

Most people reading this will have grown up in a home that featured a Scrabble set. Maybe you have one in your current home that gets dusted down and taken out every once in a while, to flex your word-making muscles.

Here are some scrabble facts:

– The highest number of points that can be scored on the first go is 128 – with “muzjiks'”(Russian peasants).

– There are over 260,000 legal words allowed under British Scrabble rules.

– Somewhere in the world there are over an estimated million missing Scrabble tiles.

–  There is a town called Scrabble in Berkeley County, West Virginia, USA. They don’t have a Scrabble club.

There is a scrabble club in Wexford though and they contacted me recently about their annual open tournament, which is coming up soon, so I took the opportunity to talk to two of its biggest scrabble enthusiasts (and best players) about the game and why they love it so much.

Mary Doyle and Theresa Scallan from Wexford Scrabble Club.

Mary Doyle and Theresa Scallan don’t immediately strike you as the type of women who’d have an impressive repertoire of South African slang, but they do.

In fact these two Wexford women would also be able to give as good as they get with the locals in New Zealand too.

The reason for this seemingly odd interest in the outer reaches of the lexicon in far flung countries is due to their love of Scrabble. For Mary and Theresa, Scrabble isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life.

Mary’s love affair with the game created by US architect Alfred Mosher Butts during the Great Depression was sparked on a ship as she made the long journey from Southampton to Australia, where she was going to work as a nurse.

“The moment I saw it I was fascinated,” said Mary, who found it not only a lot of fun, but a great away to while away the hours on her trip down under. She has never stopped playing since.

When she returned to Wexford 20 years ago she saw an ad in the Wexford People newspaper looking for like-minded people liked Scrabble and were interested in playing it on a regular basis.

She replied and at the home of Con and Mary Noonan in Kyle’s Cross, Crossabeg, she attended the first meeting of what would later become Wexford Scrabble Club.

Theresa found the club several years later when she was at Castlebridge Community Centre collecting her daughter from the Brigini (Girl Guides) and saw a notice on the wall from the Scrabble club.

“I had never heard of scrabble in my life, but the notice said that anyone interested in crosswords should come along and I love crosswords so I said I would give it a go,” said Theresa.

“I got such a welcome. I didn’t know anyone there, but I felt at home,’” said Theresa. The phrase “like a duck to water” doesn’t begin to do her justice.

She was consumed by the game for some time. “I was so hooked I’d be adding up how much the number plate of the car in front of me was worth,” admitted Theresa.

She also admitted she playing the game constantly at home, keeping her children up later than she should have been on school nights! This obsession got her up to a high level in a surprisingly short space out of time though.

Theresa is now the “A” player in Wexford Scrabble Club and along with Mary regularly plays in tournaments at home and abroad.

Scrabble is a serious business at the top level. Theresa and Mary don’t just play scrabble to hone their skills, they also study the English language, including all the slang and words of foreign origin, as well as other technical, archaic, obsolete, colloquial or lesser-known terms.

Have you ever heard of an Ozey? Do you know what a Pyxidium is? Ever heard someone playing a qin? This year the words ‘Thang’, Grrl’, ‘Innit’ and ‘Facebook’ have made it into the Collins Official Scrabble Words list.

If it’s in the dictionary, or added to it, they will hunt it down. They might never get to use these words on the Main Street in Wexford, but may just prove the difference in a tournament.

“I never get tired of it,” said Theresa “I love the challenge of finding new words,” said Mary.

However, despite all that, like all the casual Christmas time board game players, Mary accepts that sometimes you just get unlucky.

Anyone who has played some Scrabble will probably have found themselves drowning in a sea of vowels with not a consonant in sight (as it happens, ‘Scrabble’ means to “grope frantically” and was trademarked in 1948).

“You can get bad runs of letters or good runs, you just have to hope for the best,’”said Mary. The element of chance adds to the enjoyment it seems and it also makes it more challenging.

In tournaments, players generally get a limit of 25 minutes each, so the longest a game can last is 50 minutes. Dictionaries are now redundant. Computers are used to check the words.

Mary said that Scrabble, despite the solitary study, is actually a very sociable game and local clubs and tournaments are a great way to meet friends and make new ones. There are thousands all over the world.

She said Wexford Scrabble Club welcomes new members and assured anyone thinking of going along that it’s not competitive at club level and they always ensure a good and enjoyable start for newbies.

Theresa said that one of the great things about scrabble is that “you can play it anywhere”. This is particularly true since the online version of the game has become increasingly popular in recent years.

However, isn’t there is always the chance that people are cheating? “Who knows what anyone is doing? But it doesn’t bother me and if someone uses a very unusual word then I’ve learned something,” said Theresa.

“You’re not playing to win, you’re playing to learn,” said Mary. It’s this passion for words and Scrabble that will keep these two women fluent in South African slang for a long time to come.

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