Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Angry Words: Let's Restore Honor To Online Scrabble

The word “quale” is a noun. It comes from Latin, rhymes with Pixar’s robot, and means, most commonly, “the quality of a thing.” For instance: the particular redness of a particular McIntosh apple. According to the OED, this usage first appeared in 1675, then again in 1875, which, as far as I can tell, was also its last usage. Or it was, until a few weeks ago, when a friend of mine earned 32 points by playing the “e” on a Double Word Score in a game of the Scrabble-simulator “Words with Friends.”

More than ten million people have downloaded “Words with Friends,” and many others play similar versions: Facebook Scrabble, Pogo, Lexulous. The game feels more refined than flinging birds from slingshots and is best enjoyed, as its name suggests, with people you know. I play against friends, family and co-workers in California, Missouri and Massachusetts, and, in many cases, the game has become our most frequent contact.

In short, we’ve entered a New Age of Electronic Scrabble—a Golden Age, even, bringing together former roommates, mothers and sons, friends and long-distance lovers. But there's a dark side to “Words with Friends”—a nefarious quale, if you will—that represents the greatest smartphone-induced threat to our nation’s integrity since the Blackberry ruined pub trivia. It appears in the form of “zax” or “hame” or “henting,” each of which are underlined in red as I type this in Microsoft Word, and each of which have been successfully deployed against me in “Words with Friends." And I'm certain that when my opponent played “hame,” she was as surprised as I was to find that the word existed.

In short, the problem we face is an epidemic of guessing. Unlike traditional Scrabble, where you can demand, on the spot, that your opponent find “zax” in the dictionary, “Words with Friends” opponents can be separated by zip codes, boroughs, even time zones. The game offers no penalty against guessing—it simply declines your attempt, politely encouraging you to try another improbable-but-high-scoring combination of letters. My friend “had a feeling” that “quale” was a word, so she guessed. Another friend played “zikurat” (45 points) before informing me that, of course, "ziggurat" has a number of alternate spellings. Admittedly, I’ve made a number of questionable plays myself.

Here’s a list of words that I've seen used in recent games, with accompanying definitions adapted from the OED:
• Arf—in certain dialects, a form of “argh”
• Dungs—to cover with manure
• Gar—a fish with long bill-like jaws
• Haled—to pull (past tense)
• Heeder—a male sheep from nine months old to its first shearing
• Malfed—no OED entry!
• Quod—to put in prison
• Varve—“a pair of thin layers of clay and silt of contrasting color and texture which represent the deposit of a single year (summer and winter) in still water at some time in the past (usu. in a lake formed by a retreating ice-sheet)”
• Yar—to snarl, as or like a dog
• Zona—“zone,” if you’re an anatomist

Each of these appears in something called the Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon, or, ENABLE, a public-domain dictionary used by "Words with Friends" to determine which words count and which don't. I'd guess that many words on this list are beyond most players' vocabularies—and yet online Scrabble creates an irresistible scenario where we play words we don't even know.

Scrabble, it seems, has met its steroid problem, with its own competitors threatening the game’s integrity under the banner of, ”Well, everybody’s doing it.” Chalk this up to the Internet enabling (remember the dictionary’s acronym?) yet another flaw in human nature. So, until the overlords of “Words with Friends” institute a penalty for guessing, something must be done. To that end, I propose all players abide by a simple honor code: For words of three or more letters¹, you should be able to offer a definition.

It's impossible to enforce, of course. But try we must. Otherwise, what will we do if, God forbid, we somehow find ourselves playing a real-life game of Scrabble against a real-life opponent? Skills atrophied, will we just stare blankly at our tiles, wondering if "Phrzk" might possibly be a word?

¹ The use of two-letter words opens up so many layers of Scrabble strategy that it would be foolish to require anyone to know that “jo,” “aa,” and “ka” are defined, respectively, as a Portuguese coin, a stream, and the “name given by the ancient Egyptians to a spiritual part of a human being or a god which survived after death and could reside in a statue of the dead person.” Thus, they’re fair game.

Reeves Wiedeman plays “Words with Friends” under the name ReevesW. He welcomes all honorable competitors.

72 Comments / Post A Comment

katherine (#10,025)

You can have QAT when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

Also, I just wikipedia'd the definition, and that's some crackerjack timing.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)


I learned that word at sixteen or so from a National Geographic article on Yemen, as well as "khat" as an alternate spelling.

I mean, an entire country, everyone male at least, chews on this stuff everyday – a country where America is currently waging an active air war and where we base enough ships that al-Qaeda used it as a chance to blow a hole in one of them. It's a ubiquitous part of their culture, that country that we're bombing.

And that's just one country that uses it!

I knew it wasn't the most common fucker on the planet but when it's indicated as some sort of cheat or hack, I feel like I'm on another planet. (Not to mention: it's the equivalent of a lay-up for Scrabble pros.)

It's not that everyone "should" know it, but that EVERYONE knows words like that – words that the other people at the table have never seen before but aren't obscure. It's SCRABBLE.

This doesn't really go to the point of the article, but whenever someone offers examples of "ridiculous" words, they're going to discover that someone in the room wrote a paper on them in high school or tosses them around on the job every day.

So far, we've had three commenters working in phil-of-mind pointing out that "quale" is ridiculously OVERUSED in their discipline.

Aa means lava, dude. I thought everyone knew that.

geo dude@twitter (#11,279)

@DorothyMantooth so does pahoehoe

I'm banned from gay Scrabble.

propertius (#361)

You can use the plural "qualia", too.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@propertius And thereby hangs a tale.

@propertius "Qualia" is a fairly common word so I'd have to approve the singular..

carpetblogger (#306)

scrabble is dead to me since they made a game for those in the US and a different one for those not in the US.

wallsdonotfall (#6,378)

This sort of word knowledge (memorization, if not guessing, without knowing the definitions) is fundamental to professional Scrabble players, the kind who fly around the country (or world) to play in tournaments where they can expect to make thousands in prize money. The real problem, as I've had it explained to me, is that the dictionary used by the North American Scrabble Players Association doesn't contain enough of these insane words compared to the dictionary used by the rest of the world. Some of the best pro Scrabble players in the world are 16 year old kids from Thailand who can't speak English but have memorized the Collins dictionary well enough to whup the asses of any American who uses English as she is spoke.

wallsdonotfall (#6,378)

Let me make clear that I'm not a very good Scrabble player, never mind a professional one. My source is my high school boyfriend, now a pro player. After losing our virginities together in a remote mountain paradise one vacation long ago, he begged off on doing more of the sexin' in order to study Scrabble vocabulary flash cards.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@wallsdonotfall This sounds like a fun game.

dumdum (#10,055)

@wallsdonotfall A professional Scrabble player, you say? Good on ya for taking his virginity when you did. Otherwise it may never have gotten took.

stuff_is_things (#6,108)

@wallsdonotfall My old housemate is a semi-professional player and I can confirm that this is true — serious Scrabble has nothing to do with vocabulary, and everything to do with strategy (including memorizing all legal 2-letter combinations). She's a pretty normal well adjusted person though? I mean, I seriously doubt she'd sacrifice sex for Scrabble anyway…

Renee Dumas (#7,992)

@Jon Custer

Yeah. It's all about two-letter words, by far the easiest way to fill a multiplier square that's bordered by two letters on different sides.

A lot of those are dictionary phonetic spellings of English letters. Not even linguists use those anymore. Memorizing the definitions of two-letters, even three-letters, is a waste of time in Scrabble. The only reason a pro would learn definitions is as a mnemonic device.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Another problem with trying to play Scrabble online is you can't make side bets about who is bluffing their word. Which is what my buds always did instead of challenging words.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)


That's the only way I've found to make it an effective drinking game.

And that method plays out almost EXACTLY like online Scrabble, because aggressive guessing is a high-stakes strategy for wearing down your opponent's ability to see the board.

HiredGoons (#603)

'Gar' is perfectly acceptable to me.

Do people not know what a Gar is?

@HiredGoons : It's what my iphone thinks is a perfectly reasonable thing to park in a garage.

DMcK (#5,027)

@HiredGoons: Ditto for "Yar", although I didn't know it had another definition besides the one used in The Philadelphia Story.

MollyBloomberg (#1,169)

@HiredGoons Gar is the fish you catch when you are trying to catch a proper fish. Toothy, mean fucker.

Chest Rockwell (#11,302)

@HiredGoons Gwar?

grandpa27 (#804)

@DMcK I remember that thar word as yaw, but I am Old.

DMcK (#5,027)

@grandpa27: YAR: (of a ship) quick to the helm; easily handled or maneuvered (and, in the hands of Hepburn & Grant, a good double-entendre).

dearheart (#4,203)

I admit it. I've bluffed (almost entirely at/under the 3-letter limit, whew) but then I make myself look up the word and meditate on its meaning/how stupid I am, so, maybe a bit less awful?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

There's an unfortunately long list of dear friends who I've called a "fucking idiot" or a "dirty goddamn scoundrel" for pulling shit like this in a Scrabble game.

cherrispryte (#444)

@boyofdestiny Of course there is.

portmanteautally (#1,015)

It is extremely generous of you to chalk this all up to guessing, as opposed to good old-fashioned cheating using apps like Hidden Elephant.

I play WWF with some people I know are certified morons who come up with shit like "qaid" and I can't tell them to go fuck themselves because while they are family, it is not yet Thanksgiving dinner and there is a time and a place for that kind of thing.

Dan Packel (#10,421)

And I thought "ba" was the only 2-letter word that meant "the spiritual self of a human being in Egyptian religion"

barnhouse (#1,326)

There is the greatest book called The Ka of Gifford Hillary that explains the difference in excruciating detail. It's true! My husband and I are always quoting that thing. "Was I a ka… or a ba?

p.s. any Tolkien fan worth his salt knows Gandalf Greyhame!? Hame! Come on. Before he becomes Gandalf the White.

@barnhouse I think you're thinking of Cory Grayhame.

Leon (#6,596)

I really like this article, and I know this is going to make me sound like a pretentious douchebag, but so does everything else I say.

Quale is not a word nobody uses. It's a word NOBODY BUT PHILOSPHERS use. In Philosophy of Mind, this (also, @propertius, i heart you for implying all of this in a much more subtle way than I) is a term which IS TOTALLY USED.

Just because technical philosophy is less mainstream than charcuterie is no reason to call our words less valid than sausage.

Br. Seamus (#217)

@Leon Saint-Jean My college senior sister just dropped "quale" on me yesterday, and instead of seething at her evident guesswork I now find myself applauding her attentiveness in philosophy class.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Leon Saint-Jean: you go. "Varve" is the same deal – it's totally in use among geologists.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)

@Leon Saint-Jean

Exactly. I dropped "qualia" on a board once (not online) and when I got challenged I rolled my eyes and began dragging out book after INCREDIBLY BORING book from undergrad and throwing them on the table. In cognitive studies, the word is, if anything, overused.

And disciplinary vocab cuts both ways. Online, I complained about my own turn when the board let me land "noh". My opponent, a chemist, laughed and simply said "oh, that's an industry term."

JoGrrrl (#11,287)

Words With Friends is definitely flawed because it doesn't have the challenge option. But don't ask people to define words they have been using for years in Scrabble games. It's a spelling game, not a definition game. It's all about memorization–always has been.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well I don't give a hang what your Entrenched North Armenian Beeswax Lexicon says. "Buttbreath" is a word.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@KarenUhOh Because language is a living, growing, disgusting thing.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

I used to play with my mother and it was beginning to destroy our relationship because she would criticize my word choices via e-mail or IM. "Bark'? Really? Are you even trying?"

theharpoon (#10,705)

@SuperMargie My mom started complaining that I was taking too long to play! What is it about WWF that makes them so pushy? This is, of course, assuming that your mom is not pushy outside of long-distance Scrabble games, as mine generally is not.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)


You should check out the chapter on Scrabble and moms in Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken".

I don't think it's an accident that it's also the chapter on the social benefits of trash-talking.

taigan (#11,267)

While I hate the fact that WordSmith allows people to stop playing without ever forcing them to resign the game, I do love that, after 3 incorrect guesses, you forfeit a turn. Lord knows, when I'm playing WordFeud (which I actually prefer), I will just start throwing letters around on the board and see what ends up being a real word. Sometimes even I'm like, "okay, really???" at what people play against me. And since I don't know 99% of my opponents in real life, I don't even have any good will toward them that will make me find their use of utterly obscure words endearing or even acceptable.


svache (#11,289)

I think, instead of actually guessing those words, people are more likely to use on of the various cheat apps, or websites such as

pot-pourri (#722)

Meanwhile, an equally great problem is that this ENABLE dictionary seems to accept basic English words, like "toejam"

sharilyn (#4,599)

I play tons of scrabble on facebook and I assume everyone is using word generators. I use them too! but I'm trying to wean myself off of them because they are only of limited use.

I personally hate that I can't get away with words. Sometimes the force of my personality will allow me to spell something like "url" or "hatecrush". The dictionary used by Scrabble is noticeably stingy with compound words, which drives me crazy!

Incidentally (#6,730)

@sharilyn Nooooo….. If everyone uses word builders, shouldn't we just play heads or tails?
I assume that no one is cheating until, like yesterday, they pull out GYTTJA. Then I take delight in winning anyway.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)


Doesn't that story provide anecdotal evidence that the different (still viable, still working, still fun) rules of online Scrabble DON'T break the game?

Astigmatism (#1,950)

My friends and I have gotten into some pretty serious informal Scrabble tournaments, and have come up with a rule that satisfies all of us: it's not enough to find the word in the dictionary; you need to be able to give an approximate definition if challenged. So if you really want to use aa or qat, then memorize the goddamned definition in advance.

MythReindeer (#5,553)

@Astigmatism Well, yes, in a civilized world that is a good rule. But then you throw in the Internet (I figured I'd capitalize it, given the discussion) and, more importantly, PEOPLE, and things just go to hell.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@Astigmatism Word.

Chest Rockwell (#11,302)

All high level scrabble players have certain words memorized, this just saves us the trouble. I do think it turns the game into luck more than skill, as with good letters, anyone can win.

grandpa27 (#804)

Oh happy day when I found ZAX at the end of my Webster College dictionary.

sporkfromkfc (#11,305)

Just don't try to play a legitimate word like "jewry" that could potentially offend someone with a double-digit IQ. The things WWFs doesn't allow are almost as moronic as the things it does.

dumdum (#10,055)

@sporkfromkfc "Jewry" offends people now? I better take mine off.

alxndr (#11,326)

Registered an account just to let you know that:

"aa" is a Hawaiian word for a cindery type of lava, not "a stream".

"malfed" means "badly fed", like "malformed" means "badly formed"

your definition rule should certainly include all the two-letter words; there are only like 101 of them.

Hasbro / EA Games have perpetuated the "no penalty for guessing" with their Facebook and iPhone apps. This despite the fact that the official rules stipulate a lost turn for whoever is wrong when a challenge is made (a huge penalty).

finally, if we're gonna complain about what *are* considered words, let's put in a couple for things that should be: "ew".

lelimang (#11,397)

@alxndr "Queef." Totally a word.

Good job defining the problem. Solution, less so.

Renee Dumas (#7,992)

The problem is that "honor" is not why people play Scrabble online. A lot of them may play Scrabble online for completely different reasons than people play the board game. The people I play with would likely never take the time to set up a board or sweat over rules.

Penalizing guesses in these games, played out over days and with an opaque virtual judge, would be immensely frustrating and goes against pretty much every rule of good game design. Jane McGonigal has a great chapter on Facebook Scrabble in her latest. The game designers left that part out for a reason, almost certainly after extensive play-testing – or they may just have learned for free from Scrabbulous.

They're not going to kneecap their game for "honor", nor should they. It's still a fun, working game, just with different rules. If it was "ruined", no one would play it.

I suggest you accept that online Scrabble is simply a different game than the one you're used to. Clearly, knowledge of the board and a wider vocabulary still give the advantage (which is why I destroy my friends).

But online Scrabble tips less toward competition than the board game and far more toward the social and educational aspects – because those infinite guesses build your vocabulary like no offline Scrabble game ever will. Unless you're never curious about anything, that is.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I play the Facebook version online quite a lot. Really miss Scrabulous with its far more elegant board design, more satisfying sounds etc. Anyhoo, Scrabble is an anagrammist's game, and for me the fun of it is closely related to the pleasures of cryptic crosswords (British style.) It is so pleasurable to wrestle deep in the mind and finally come up with the seven- or eight- or ten-letter word. None of that is altered by the "guessing" aspect–and after all, the playing field is level.

It's kind of like the difference between playing backgammon with or w/o the doubling cube; the one alteration produces an entirely different game.

LD (#11,404)

it is even worse than you think. there is a cheat available that allows you take a picture of the board, go to another game copy it and use a 'best word' feature and then you can use that move in your game.

This just popped up while I was searching for cheating at Words with Friends. I don't mind guessing as much as cheating outright. I am in a game where my score is 282 and opponent is at 492. I am guessing opponent looked up possible combos for every move. Why play if you resort to cheats?

OK wait… so I play neurula, or sulphone, and you apparently would assume I was guessing? Let's not forget, just because some people have a very standard english vocab, doesn't mean everyone does. Sheesh. Perhaps a Biomedical Engineer would know words that most people do not? Maybe? Or a quantum physicist? Or a sheep farmer? The problem with complaining about guessers is it inevitably leads to accusing those who don't need to guess.

panhandle (#192,879)

Don't understand why you would play WWF rather than Scrabble ?

Hello Reeves,

Interesting post. Whilst I agree with you on the basic premise that you should (underline 'should') only play words that you can define, I would add OR KNOW ARE VALID. But as in WWF the rules allow or do not disallow certain things why not use the WWFs ability to try odd combinations of letters? If it is a level playing field I have no problem. You forget that Scrabble players like me, who have been playing for over 50 years now 'know' the very useful words like QUALE, ZA, QI, SUQ, QUODS etc. as we need to expand our normal dictionary in order to play the two games better. This does not mean that we are using word finders but that your vocabulary is not as Scrabble/WWF useful as mine.

Many serious Scrabble players who play in competition know by heart ALL the permissable 2-letter words, probably 99% of the three letter words and many other useful words that use the letters, of which one tile exists, namely K X Q Z and J.

There are some very good comments here that you should take into account. 'Different folks have different vocabularies.' 'I just found ZAX' ( I knew that words years ago!)

Perhaps the best comment is ' It's a spelling game not a definition game'

I know all the 2-letter words but would probably only get 50% of the definitions correct if challenged.

Finally the use of word finders/word cheats is NOT expressly prohibited by the rules of WWF probably because it is impossible to enforce. I feel that it is up to the individual to decide if he wants to 'win' on his own mertits or cheat. I do not see the point of winning that way.

You may like to visit my blog on WWF at wordswithfriends. Blogspot. Com. As I would like to copy your original post with credit of course there.

Henry Barnett UN henryb65 or facebook aitchb65

frb63 (#209,568)

Does anyone know of an alternate "common usage" dictionary that can be applied to Scrabble/WWF? I would like to play this game as a vocabulary and anagrammatic exercise, while eliminating the use of arcane, specialized words encountered only in the game itself. I might even consider a 5 year word search in the New York Times. If it doesn't appear, it's not usable. Anyone know of another search engine for this purpose? Basically, I want to enjoy casual, literate games while minimizing the "Scrabble experience" advantage.

wordscheat28 (#220,596)

I use the IPHONE 5 just to play this game..Its so addicting and very fun..I use the ANAGRAMMER also so I can have some hints in times of trouble.

pjb1948 (#221,381)

I'm new to AWl and fairly new to WWF. The problem I encountered yesterday was this: With 0 letters remaining I wanted to play "fagot" for the win. WWF told me the word was unacceptable. I found this even more frustrating than having my opponent play some obscure two letter "word". So frustrating in fact that I resigned that game, all the other games I was involved in, and deleted all of my historical wins and losses. ENUF!!!

wordqueen28 (#222,803)

I adore this game! I can't get enough of it. Sometimes I'll have 10 games going at one time and I get anxiety and feel the pressure, but it's all in good fun! It's the best money I've ever spent on an iPhone application.I also use the ANAGRAMMER to give me more hints..

I hope that those of you who are using apps or sites like ANAGRAMMER are letting your opponents know you are cheating .

Seriously I find that it is crazy when " na" "Ne" and "er" are accepted (18 points for my opponent)and "Islam" and Islamic" are not. To me the ENABLE dictionary is not consistent.

Oreohead (#247,920)

Reeves, I understand your point and I agree with you in general, but I think you are overlooking the fact that the online versions of WWF and Scrabble aren't like real Scrabble and shouldn't be compared to real scrabble. The only problem I see is that they need, but don't have, a different name highlighting the distinction.

I see the purpose of these games as a training ground for rookies who want to accelerate their learning curve, so that someday they may be able to play real scrabble. The fact that these games allow penalty-free trial and error play increases a player's learning speed considerably. For that reason alone I think it serves an important purpose. I think they should change the name of the current online scrabble to "Scrabble Learner".

My frustration is that they have yet to introduce scrabble functionality which would allow challenges and impose time limits. (I predict we will get it someday–I feel its just a matter of time.) When we are given that version, we can have the best of both worlds–Real Scrabble for true players and Scrabble Learner for the wannabes.

Just to give you some background about me, I play mostly online scrabble under my facebook name or an origin account named Oreohead. MY ELO rating on my facebook account has been as high as 2037, which is the highest rating I've ever seen or heard of in that version. But in the next sentence I have to admit that I suck at real scrabble and would get trounced in any tournament. So for now I am enjoying playing Scrabble Learner, but I look forward to the day they offer the new functionality of time limits and challenges, and then I can move up to play at the adult table and take my rightful lickings for the privilege of playing with the big boys (and girls).

ACal (#287,298)


I agree that it serves good as a learning process for real Scrabble. There are so many words I don't know, that I use a helper at to find words to play. It works great but I still have to find the best way to place words on the board to get the most points.

Imposing a time limit would make the game more interesting. But I believe an important point of this sort of online games is that you don't have to dedicate your full attention to it—it's not like when you are playing face-to-face against someone. So it's quite easy to just dedicate some time to the game when it's convenient for you. I imagine that with time limits, less people would be able to play.

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