Forum

Proper nouns allowed in Scrabble? Not on my board

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When I heard that Scrabble was ostensibly amending its rules to allow the use of proper nouns, my first reaction was one of sorrow. I woke up to the report on NPR — which is of course where any good Scrabble player should get his or her news — and quickly followed my gut instinct: to search on Amazon for the price of the Scrabble Diamond Anniversary set, figuring that its black tiles would adequately mark my eternal period of mourning.

It only takes one decision to ruin a legacy of greatness, and this would be no exception. The game is sold in 121 countries in 29 different language versions. Worldwide, over 150 million sets have been sold, and sets are found in one out of every three American homes. The rules of Scrabble haven’t been changed since 1989, and even then it was nothing to get excited about: If final scores are tied, the game is ruled a tie and each player is credited with half a win. And now, in 2010, an amendment that allows proper nouns?

I decided that my Scrabble career was officially over. Forget about any future competitive play.

With the inclusion of proper nouns, the pre-eminent word masters (and yes, they exist — just wait for this year’s Scrabble World Championships) would likely be a combination of 13-year-old girls, sports fanatics, and comparison shoppers.

Gone would be the days of bookworms and linguistics masters — how can a (slightly altered) dictionary list of words compete with millions of celebrities, brand names, and sports stars with names like Azubuike? (That’s a Z, a B, and a K.) And to prove my point, I will admit that in order to create that last example I had to Google “NBA players.”

How can a word like “qat” (a tropical evergreen plant whose leaves are used as a stimulant), historically recognized for its usage of a Q with no U, compete with the never-ending list of proper nouns that fit into the same category: Qatar, Qantas, Qimonda, and QVC, to name a few.

A spokesperson for Mattel, originally quoted in the UK’s Daily Mail, may make my point better than I can.

“The new quirks will level the playing field.... Experienced players with a vast vocabulary could be equally pitted against players with a love of celebrity or football.”

Who wants an even playing field? I mean, this is just a matter of morals. “Bedazzle” on a triple word score? That’s 57 points, and — obviously — if someone were to play this word, they would just have used all of their tiles, which adds a 50-point bonus, for a total of 107 points — for a word whose definition involves “as seen on TV” labels and rhinestones. As I said, immoral.

But then the real facts came out, reassuring me about my future in competitive Scrabble.

Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble outside of North America, is introducing a game called “Scrabble Trickster,” which will allow proper nouns. The game will include cards that allow players to spell words backward and steal letters from opponents, among other nontraditional moves.

The game will not be available in North America, where Hasbro owns Scrabble. Trickster, we can safely conclude, will be an unnecessary addition to an ever-growing list of unfortunate knock-offs.

Which means no one cares — Scrabble remains unchanged (at least for the moment). We bookworms can continue to collect obscure assortments of words with ideal vowel-to-consonant ratios, while the 13-year-old girls and sports fanatics (a good word in itself for 26 on a double word) can play Scrabble Trickster.

However, I applaud the quick reaction of the news media (NPR, CBS, the BBC, The Telegraph, The Times in London, and The Daily Mail, to name a few) and revel in the fact that I was not alone in my temporary panic-induced insanity. Millions entertained the idea that the addition of proper nouns could destroy a long-loved and enduring tradition.

Which is precisely why I am proud to call myself a member of the National Scrabble Association. So don’t try to beat my quixotry with your Quentin.