Scrabble, and Other Secret Languages

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Because am I knee-deep in writing The Baltimore Book of the Dead, we’re reposting a column from the very early days of Bohemian Rhapsody — the third, in fact. The Baltimore Fishbowl was just a month old. My ex and I were having a little post-divorce relapse, as we learn at the end of the piece. That does seem like a long time ago. Since I wrote this, four new two-letter words have been added to the “secret language” of Scrabble: DA GI PO TE, appended to the official word list in 2014. I can only imagine what my mother would have to say about it. These days, it’s her namesake, my seventeen-year-old daughter Jane, who is kicking my butt. There’s no one I’d rather lose to.

Originally published June 22, 2011 – I was brought into the fold of Scrabble players in the mid-90s by a food writer boyfriend who kindly scooped me up and resuscitated me after my first husband died of AIDS. In addition to viciously competitive Scrabble playing, the food writer’s recovery program for dazed widows included extravagant piggery both at home and in restaurants, gin martinis, Camels, wave-tossed waterbed sex and the occasional brisk morning walk.

He taught me the basic two-letter words, which include the Greek letters (MU, NU, XI) and the notes of the scale (DO, RE, MI). AA, I learned, is a word, as are AB, AE, AI, and AL. Still, I never had a chance. He perceived me as being slightly ahead of him in the race to literary immortality and was therefore hell-bent on beating the pants off me every time we played.

We were watching the news together on Christmas Eve of ’94 when it was announced that the forthcoming fourth edition of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD4) would include QI, a term from the Chinese meaning “the vital force in all things.” Since there are so few words that use Q without U, we immediately permitted it in our games.

They sent out that press release a little early, I guess. Nine years later, when OSPD4 finally hit the streets, the food writer and I were long broken up. We never knew that the alternate spelling KI would be sanctioned, nor imagined ZA, perhaps the most important two-letter word in Scrabble, which debuted at that time as well.

The Z is a 10-point tile in Scrabble, and there’s only one of them in a set. It’s not the easiest letter to play. When a beginning player gets the Z, he sits with the tile on his rack until the other letters of ZOO or CZAR show up, then triumphantly slaps down his word. Trying to place the Z on a double- or triple-bonus square seems impossible.

If a seasoned player draws the Z, it’s another story.

“ZA?!? What the hell is that?” squawks the newbie, if not already completely worn down by words such as NE and JUPON.

“It means pizza,” says the old hand confidently, as if she has actually met someone in the history of the world who calls a pizza a za. The dictionary’s position is that it’s slang circa 1970. I dunno. I was twelve in 1970; it was the year I won a pizza-eating contest at summer camp in Massachusetts by consuming 17 slices, and I certainly never heard of it.

ZA is in; DUNNO is not. But when it comes to an extra 30 or 60 points in Scrabble, we don’t argue with the OSPD4.

*

Once I became a Scrabble fiend, I was eager to play my mother, whose word game of choice was The New York Times crossword puzzle. She did the puzzle every day, and on the Sundays of my childhood, she and my father sat at the kitchen table with their heads bent over it together — perhaps their most harmonious and proximate pursuit.

In the 60s and 70s, before Will Shortz came to power on the puzzle page at the Times and retired the use of insanely obscure words and proper nouns, a maven like my mother had frequent recourse to her beat-up paperback edition of The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Dictionary. Here one could look up the arcane nomenclature of various flora, fauna, deities, rocks, towns, and so forth, in order to fill in the last few empty blocks on the page.

Of course, someone who did the puzzle as regularly as my mother had come to know many of these words as readily as Scrabble players whip out ZA and QI. My mother didn’t need a dictionary to tell her that ERATO was the muse of lyric poetry; OMOO, a Melville novel; ANOA, a small buffalo of the Celebes having small straight horns. I think she was just being nice when she gave me “Brian of Roxy Music” to solve. ENO had been in so many times, she surely knew.

Because my mom never doubted her puzzle words, as bizarre and unheard of as they may have been, I was surprised by her reaction the night I first got her to play Scrabble.

“These aren’t words,” she said, her thin Coral Cadillac lips narrowing to a line. “This is cheating!”

“But they are words!” I cried, showing her my beat-up paperback OSPD4. “They’re all in here! You can look!”

“I don’t want to look,” she said petulantly. “This isn’t fun for me.”

No one could argue with that. And as long she had the moral high ground, she lit up a Carlton Extra-Light 100 right there in the house.

Perhaps my mom was just too old to learn a whole new vocabulary. I had much better luck bringing in the stepdaughter I acquired in my second marriage. Emma, who was 11 when I began to teach her the game, began beating me soon after. The very words that irked my mother delighted her, and soon she was coming back from the Scrabble club at Carver sporting FUB and GHI. (Having spent years in a parochial school in Pikesville, she didn’t need the club word list to give her PE and FE, both Hebrew letters.)

Her father, from whom I am now divorced, rarely tolerated a game of Scrabble, and never again did a crossword puzzle with me after I once fed him a clue I knew the answer to (“Brian of Roxy Music?”). Well, I didn’t pay much attention to his magic tricks or bonsai trees or anarchist treatises, so I guess I deserved it.

Lately, however, after years apart, we’ve begun to remember all the things we did like about each other. These were good things, and I am happy to have them my in life again. OGL, as we called Our Great Love, has come back to us like a once-fluent second language, rusty from disuse but not lost altogether.

While in the meantime I’ve become addicted to single living and don’t believe I can go back the other way, I do nurture a Stephen King-type fantasy of caring for him in his declining years, forcing him to play Scrabble with me once he’s bedridden. Though since we are exactly the same age, it’s just as likely he’ll have me bonsaied to my wheelchair watching him do arm spreads with a Bicycle deck.

Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness in Baltimore. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays every month on Baltimore Fishbowl.

Marion Winik

Marion Winik

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik writes Bohemian Rhapsody on the first Wednesday of the month. She is the author of "First Comes Love," and, forthcoming in fall 2018, "The Baltimore Book of the Dead." She is the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her monthly email at marionwinik.com.
Marion Winik

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Love this essay, because I love Marion Winik’s writing and because I used to do the Washington Post Sunday Magazine’s crossword puzzle with my ex-wife, and those were some of our best times together. It wasn’t competition at all; it was our collaboration at its best. Somehow, out of that process, the word “Ermine” became code for Goodnight, everything’s going to be alright, sleep deeply and well! Love that memory. Thanks, Marion.

  2. This column really hit home. Just last night my 87 year old mother and I played Scrabble. I lost, of course, even with “majestic”, worth 110 points( double word plus a Bingo), by only 4 points. She also does the NYT Sunday puzzle in ink. My word-building strategy is to cling to, as my mother calls it, a cheat sheet of 2-letter words. Your shared dialogue sounds all too real. Loved it! Thanks!

  3. bBecause I’m a writer, people always assume I love crosswords and Scrabble. But i don’t. I like games like Taboo and Celebrity Identity, where my arcane knowledge of all things pop culture make me a sure-fire winner. But I would be honored to play Scrabble with the irascible wit of Marion Winik if ever she would have me

  4. This article poked me in all the right places. My Scrabble addiction didn’t start until the “i’s” entered my life, as in Phone and Pad. I do get frustrated, however, when Scrabble czar (yes, overused “z” word) disagrees with the Boggle, Jumbline, or Text Twist judges on the use of venn (as in diagram) and zen (as in Jon Stuart’s “moment of…”). But no one can argue with Winik’s word usage. Her edgy and erudite musings always keep me wanting more!

  5. I can’t tell you how much confidence it gave me, Marion, when you revealed last January that your mother, who I admired greatly, hated Scrabble. I even told Lou “It’s OK for me to hate Scrabble. Jane did, too.”

  6. I resemble your look at our obsessions. Yes, obsessions. Nobody plays Scrabble or works the NY crossword unless they are driven to it. My sister can’t wait for me to set down my suitcase when I “go home” before she gets out her deluxe board. After many years of regularly losing to her, I’ve decided there are 2 kinds of Scrabble players: competitors (my sis and my late husband who I once discovered upstairs in the bedroom reading a dictionary just before a family match) and nice guys (suckers like myself who plunk down low count words to keep the board spread out and open in case we get enough letters to make a high point word). I’m going to work on those 2-letter words before my summer trip home.

  7. Nothing is better than knowing a new bit of Marion Winiks writing is waiting for me to read it. Let me rephrase that – waiting for me to savor it. Much better !

  8. Jyl . . . I will play with you any time anywhere . . . including here and now IF I can figure out how to get to the game board.

  9. I love Scrabble but won’t play with people who use those Scrabble-approved, two-letter so-called words. “Za”? Nowhere on god’s green earth did anyone ever say to anyone else, “Let’s go get a za.” And the phonetic sounds for letters of the alphabet aren’t words; they’re phonemes. Yeah, and get offa my lawn while you’re at it!

  10. If you don’t follow the Official Word List or the Scrabble dictionary, though, how do you know what is a word and what isn’t?

  11. One of my favorite columns over the years, I come from a Scrabble family and even recently learned that I have tiles in my blood, so this was very fulfilling, thank you beautiful one.

  12. I am refractory to Scrabble. I think it’s because I want points for knowing the words but can’t be bothered with the tedium of strategy. I never enjoyed RISK and I was a disaster the one time I attempted CATAN. I prefer the games where raw knowledge or trickery can prevail: Charades, CLUE, Celebrity, Spads. I’ve watched Marion and her comrades in action with Scrabble. Count me out, but again, a delightful column.

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