Skip to main content

The new version of Scrabble is only meant for people who play for funJOHN LEHMANN

Radicals in the Scrabble world are bitching and moaning these days over a new rule in England that permits personal, brand, company and place names. Trust the English to stir things up; you'd think they invented the language.

Hatched at corporate headquarters, Mattel - the toy conglomerate that holds the world (but not the North American) rights on the Scrabble brand - didn't bother to consult U.K. Scrabble clubs over the change, knowing full well it wouldn't go over. But Mattel doesn't particularly care what the club players think, because they make up only a tiny share of the market.

Scrabble in the U.K. already has 30,000 more words than the 100,000 allowable in the United States and Canada. Obviously, the sport is ruled by profligates and free thinkers who are now putting forward the revolutionary idea that names are words, too. Nick and Sandy and Hank and Nancy have long enjoyed life inside the cover of dictionaries, because they're nouns or verbs in their own right. But for every tom, dick and harry, there's a Sidney and Elizabeth and Celia excluded.

Names are on a rung of their own on the ladder of words, and that rung is at the bottom. It's not by accident they're not in dictionaries. Names are tags for individuals and are - by design, really - devoid of descriptive power. There is nothing to define. There is no such thing as a phil, even if you know a Phil. Whereas a real noun, such as "gravel," instantly conveys a slew of impressions.

A name need not make sense on any level. It's the perfect instance of an arbitrary event. I know a newborn christened Allie but who is, in fact, called Pidge, Pigeon, Wurzer, Ballamy, Manudo and Munmun. The names change faster than the child herself, but she answers to every one of them.

The business of what's a word is already a hornet's nest of special interests in the world of dictionaries, and its prosecution is at the very heart of The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary - which is put together by Scrabble players, not word experts. They regularly mine the legitimate dictionaries, as they did to create their bible in the first place, and announce a list of newly legitimate words every couple of years. The last go-round, for example, included "krewe": "a private group participating in the New Orleans Mardi Gras."

Some Australian players are trying to drum up support for the inclusion of the word "erm" as an expression of doubt, as well as "gank" (to borrow web content without permission) and "nup" (a flippant form of no).

Proper nouns do not belong in dictionaries, but why not in Scrabble, where definitions don't matter? Crosswords have never suffered from their inclusion, and crosswords have been around a lot longer.

The proposal to allow names in the game will have no import on club and tournament Scrabble, which will continue to exclude them and, no doubt, feel more virtuous for it. The new name-laden version is only meant for people who play for fun.

Notwithstanding, Charlie Brooker at The Guardian grumbles about "bastardized flavours." The Hindustan Times (Indians are mad Scrabblers) quotes Mauro Pratesi, chairman of the London Scrabble League, as saying: "They are just tarting up the game. I don't think Scrabble people will be happy."

Some of the most shocked observers characterize the new "trick edition" of Scrabble as a crass partnership with the corporations to promote themselves to the status of words. There's already an honourable history of brand names eventually making the grade as bona fide words - hoover, xerox, kleenex, jello, even fedex. But they had to walk the walk.

Given the commercial motive behind the new edition of Scrabble, it's unlikely that a list of acceptable names will ever be assembled. If, say, a dispute arises during the course of play over whether Tayshaun is a name, the mob will have to rule. It could be interesting. Google would be all you'd ever need. Tens of thousands of new entries will flood the game, chaos will rule and the whole business will quickly devolve into sheer fun.

Jamie Craig's word-gaming novel, 26 , will be published this year in Paris.