When is a Word Just a Word?

By Maeve Maddox

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One of my teaching dictums about parts of speech is that “a word is not a part of speech until it’s used in a sentence.” The word run, for example, depending upon context, can be a verb or a noun.

We watched her run around the bases. (verb)
Sammy hit a home run. (noun)

Until recently, I would have also said that “a word with more than one meaning doesn’t mean anything until it is used in a sentence.” For example, the verb cleave can mean “to split or sever” or “to adhere strongly to.”

Recent activities surrounding the board game Scrabble, however, have me rethinking this latter dictum.

Perhaps a word is never “just a word.”

Home board game to competition play
Scrabble’s inventor started thinking about the game in 1933. The name Scrabble was trademarked in 1948, and the game caught on nationally in the 1950s. By the 1970s, the game’s popularity had inspired Scrabble clubs across the country. In 1978, the National Scrabble Association (NSA) was formed to provide organization for tournaments. In association with Merriam-Webster, the NSA published the first edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) to serve as a convenient reference for tournament play.

The first two editions of the OSPD contained profanity and racial slurs drawn from the dictionary. No one objected until 1993, when a Virginia woman, Judith Grad, wrote to the game’s owners and M-W, objecting to the words in the OSPD. They responded that the objectionable words are a part of the language and that dictionaries record them. The words were not intended to cause offense, “they were just words.”

Grad insisted that a board game meant for family entertainment did not have the same function as a dictionary, and that certain words did not belong in its rules. She continued her objections and eventually inspired a letter-writing campaign that accomplished the desired effect. When the third edition of the OSPD was published in 1995, 175 “offensive” words were deleted. For tournament play, however, all words continued to be playable.

The next call to purge the official word list came in 2020, prompted by current events. As stories about immigration and racial injustice filled the news, racial and ethnic slurs spelled out on Scrabble boards began to cause discomfort.

NASPA and WESPA
Two major volunteer organizations handle the logistics needed to stage Scrabble tournaments.

For the US and Canada, it’s the North American Players’ Association (NASPA). The NSA dissolved in 2013.

Outside of North America, the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association (WESPA) organizes Scrabble tournaments. Their official Scrabble dictionary is published by Collins.

The two organizations are licensed to use the Scrabble name by the trademark owners. Hasbro owns it in the US and Mattel owns it in the rest of the world.

When both Hasbro and Mattel decided to ban racial and ethnic slurs from tournament play, the NASPA and WESPA had to go along or lose their licenses.

In 2020, NASPA published a list of 259 slurs to be avoided in tournament play.

Mattel has targeted about 400 objectionable words.

Many tournament-playing Scrabble enthusiasts are incensed by the ban.

Nick Ascroft, a high-ranking Scrabble player in New Zealand, gives his reasons for why he (and what he says is “the vast majority of tournament players across the world”) object to the new rulings. He says that “some of the most offensive slur words have other less offensive meanings.” He feels that some words are highly offensive to many people, but that “others are slightly irksome to 12 or 13 people.” He feels that if players can deal with offensive words in a dictionary, they “can handle a word game based on dictionaries.”

A spokesman for Mattel defends the company’s decision this way:

“We looked at some of the social unrest that’s going on globally. I’ve heard the argument that these are just words, but we believe they have meaning. Can you imagine any other game where you can score points and win by using a racial epithet? It’s long overdue.”

Some language-lovers, even if they are not Scrabble players, may view this word purge as political correctness overkill. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s OK.

A large part of the turmoil tearing at the social fabric right now is focused on language. Words are powerful symbols that stir emotions. A word that is “just a word” to me may cut someone else to the heart. That’s probably reason enough to eliminate certain words from a board game designed for family and neighborly fun.

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4 Responses to “When is a Word Just a Word?”

  • ApK

    Interesting info about Scrabble.
    As for the “Maybe that’s OK,” I have a lot to say about it, but this is not the right forum.

  • Maeve

    ApK
    I think I know what you are thinking. The “maybe” is there because I’m still conflicted. When I first heard about the rulings, I thought, “How preposterous! Surely, sez I, Scrabble enthusiasts have the sense and sensitivity to realize what words are appropriate for use with a given group of players. On the other hand, sense and sensitivity seem to be in short supply these days. Btw, I saw the Hasbro list. I’d never seen half the words on it. I don’t plan to look them up.

  • Ron Palmer

    Censorship is evil in any form. Once you start placating fools, the placating never ends until you reach absolute sterility. It seems we are in an age where this lesson of history has to be relearned though mass suffering.

    It is sufficient to have a child friendly subset of a complete dictionary. It is pure evil to butcher a dictionary because of emotional manipulation. ISIS is offended by a great many things. By the logic you apply here, all they need is a large enough following before you agree to capitulate to them.

  • Maeve

    Ron Palmer,
    You make a valid argument. A family-friendly word list sold with the game ought to suffice for home and school play. Competing adults might be expected to deal with any word in Merriam-Webster.

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