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Too Much 'Word,' Not Enough 'Nerd' In This Scrabble Story

Here's one way to attract readers: Spell out your title in Scrabble tiles. It worked for Stefan Fatsis's Word Freak in 2001, though that's not all that worked for that wonderful book, which remains the best about the game of Scrabble and its obsessed competitors.

Now John D. Williams, Jr., the Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association for 25 years and co-author of the excellent how-to manual, Everything SCRABBLE, has written Word Nerd, a memoir about his immersion in what he calls "the SCRABBLE subculture." Its title, so similar to Word Freak, is spelled out in wooden tiles on a wooden rack — although the tiles lack the customary point values in their lower right-hand corners. Literary critic that I am, I can't help looking for symbolism in their pointlessness.

Williams's book, like Fatsis's, is mainly concerned not with living room play but with tournament Scrabble, where memorization of some 100,000 obscure words rarely used in real life is essential. Unlike Fatsis, Williams capitalizes all references to SCRABBLE, underscoring the fact that despite its rapid spread into near-generic ubiquity, Scrabble remains a trademarked brand. His tone is conversational, punctuated by "Oh yeahs" and an overfondness for acronyms — including NSA — not for the National Security Agency but for the National Scrabble Association — and OSPD for the Official Scrabble Players' Dictionary.

Like the game itself, Word Nerd has its ups and downs. Much of it somewhat tediously chronicles Williams's years of promoting the game through national and international tournaments and the National School Scrabble Program. It also spells out the loss of the job he loved, after the priorities of Scrabble's corporate owner Hasbro changed. Although Word Nerd features some of the same eccentric players introduced in Word Freak (including "G.I. Joel" Sherman, so-called because of his gastrointestinal woes), Fatsis'sportraits are sharper.

John D. Williams Jr. was the executive of the National SCRABBLE Association. He co-authored <em>Everything SCRABBLE</em>.
Marty Heitner / Courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation
Courtesy of Liveright Publishing Corporation
John D. Williams Jr. was the executive of the National SCRABBLE Association. He co-authored Everything SCRABBLE.

Readers are likely to find Williams's discussion of how a word makes it into the OSPD more interesting. The short answer is that editors at Merriam-Webster pore over diverse publications looking for viable new words or usages; the greater the number of prominent citations, the greater the likelihood of inclusion. The addition of foreign words, including currency (such as zaire, "a monetary unit of the former country of the same name," and xu, from South Vietnamese currency) has been particularly controversial. So, too, are slangy or techno-centric new words like email, byte, spam, phat, awol, moolah and yo.

In defense of these neologisms, Williams argues sensibly: "I, like my colleagues at Merriam-Webster, believe that the language is a living, breathing entity and that words, meaning, and even grammatical usage are going to change over the course of time. As well they should. Otherwise, we'd all be walking around talking like characters from Beowulf."

Nothing raised more ire among ardent Scrabble players than the scouring of nearly 300 offensive words from the official players' dictionaries in the mid '90s — fatso, redneck and wazoo all went, plus anything that could be deemed scatological, or a racial or sexual slur. The full list, a testament to political correctness taken to absurd extremes, appears in the book's valuable appendix, along with useful lists of important short Q, X, J and Z words, two-letter words, and "vowel dumps" — words that help dispose of all those annoying extra i's and u's.

Williams also addresses "the gender gap in tournament performance," which he calls "a topic that just won't go away." He notes that although "women test better than men in regard to language skills," Scrabble actually requires mathematical abilities — specificially, "the ability to assess probability of tile possibilities." Williams's mini-profiles of several top female players add balance to his book, even if they don't fully answer the question of why there have been so few women champions.

Word Nerd makes a strong case for why Scrabble is such a remarkable game, balancing skill and luck, analysis and creativity, spelling and the spatial sense Williams calls "board vision." But the book is bogged down by everything you never really wanted to know about Williams's former job. My favorite takeaway? The vowel-less cwm, meaning a deep-walled basin. Can't wait to use it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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