When people talk about words failing them, they normally have something vaguely semantic in mind, a feeling that words and meanings are out of joint, that they know what they want to say but not how to say it. This explanation is predicated on a notion that meaning exists prior to and independently of language, and whether or not that is the case is questionable. But whatever its cause, the feeling is real, and familiar, enough. The usual – and usually unsatisfactory – ways out of the quandary are silence or cliché. A third way may be available, however: play a game of Scrabble, and what it means to be failed by words acquires a new complexion. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble by Stefan Fatsis (Yellow Jersey, £15) announces itself on the jacket as having to do with, among other things, ‘huge lists of words with no meaning at all’. If only it were so simple. Words in Scrabble do have meanings, they’re just totally unrelated to what the words mean in English. A casual player might respond to an opponent’s ZO by saying: ‘Zo? What does that mean?’ A more advanced player would say nothing, and stick a D in front of it. In English, zo and dzo are alternative spellings of zho, a hybrid cow found in the Himalayas, the offspring of a domestic horned cow and a yak (the female is known as a zhomo). In English, zo is not a very useful word. In Scrabble, ZO is the only eligible two-letter word with a Z in it: this makes it almost as useful as QI (neither, incidentally, is allowed in the United States). SQUALID in Scrabble may have nothing to do with DIRTY apart from an I and a D, but it has meaning nonetheless: it once meant for me 136 points (my best score ever, and much less than the 302 that the British champion Brett Smitheram – a student at Exeter University whose other hobby is bowls – once got for QUATORZES). Context, in Scrabble as in other sign systems, is vital: SQUALID only means so much if all seven letters are played at once on a Triple Word Score with the Q on a Double Letter Score; otherwise it could mean as little as 17.

The official arbitrator of what is allowed in Scrabble in the UK is the aptly named Chambers Official Scrabble Words, based on Chambers English Dictionary. In the US you need the Official Tournament and Club Word List, which in 1997 superseded The Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary. In 1993, the OSPD endured a spate of controversy after Judith Grad, an art gallery owner from Virginia, discovered that a number of racist terms were eligible in Scrabble. Her cause was taken up by the Anti-Defamation League, and eventually 167 words – including not only KIKE, DAGO and NIGGER but also FATSO, PAPIST and TURD – were removed. The Scrabble-playing community, as Fatsis tells it, ‘went ballistic. A handful of players, notably some devout Christians, backed the decision. But a huge majority, led by a number of Jewish players, accused Hasbro’ – the company that makes Scrabble in the US – ‘of censorship.’ Context, as ever, is important: DARKIES appeared in the final of the 1990 Nationals; it was silently, and sensibly, changed to DARKENS when the board was displayed on Good Morning America the next day.

The total disjunction between the semantics of Scrabble and those of English is perhaps best illustrated by an episode in which they are imagined to converge. At one point in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent, stuck on prehistoric earth, think they can discover the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything, to which the answer is 42, by getting Arthur to pick Scrabble tiles out of a bag and seeing what they spell (the reason for this is that the Earth, blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass, was a giant computer designed to work out the question, and Arthur, as an earthling, is a component of the computer). The first letter he takes out is a W, followed by an H, then an A, a T, an I, an S, and so on, spelling out the question: ‘What is seven multiplied by eight?’ This is not the ultimate question – it turns out that humanity did not evolve on Earth, but was descended from a bunch of middle-management types from another planet, so Arthur isn’t actually part of the computer – but that it is an intelligible sentence at all is absurd.

Douglas Adams co-wrote The Meaning of Liff, a mock-dictionary in which place names are assigned to familiar phenomena which ought to have names but don’t – woking, for example, is ‘standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for’. It is perhaps not surprising that someone who could produce an entire book of these should have fantasised about Scrabble making sense.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of the many science fictions said to have predicted, or at least pre-empted, the Internet. The extreme geekiness of Scrabble ought to make it ideal for the Web; and it would be, were it not for the fact that it is still in copyright, and jealously guarded by the games giants who own it, Mattel and Hasbro. On the official website, www.mattelscrabble.com, you can look at a photo of Brett Smitheram, solve Scrabble conundrums and play hangman or a space-invaders-style letter-shooting game, but you can’t actually play Scrabble. There are a number of unofficial sites where it is possible to play – at least until the site gets shut down. One of these offers ‘Imaginary Scrabble’, the rules of which are that no real words are allowed, and you have to invent a definition for any word you use – which is, of course, missing the point entirely.

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