Tag Archives: words

Life lessons I learned from Scrabble

In my leisure time, I play Scrabble online against friends. Over the years I’ve gotten reasonably good at it; I’m happy to say that I know several people who are also good at it and give me interesting games. And as I’ve learned to be better at it (some of it from playing, some of it from reading Stefan Fatsis’s book Word Freak), I’ve learned bits of perspective that are very useful for doing well at the game but also often useful in other parts of life. These may or may not be useful to you in your life – but at the very least, they will help you at Scrabble.

1. There’s no such thing as winning a turn.
The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. The aim of Scrabble is to finish with more points than your opponent. If you get more points this turn but it leads to you doing worse (or your opponent doing better) subsequently, it’s not the best play. I remember playing one friend who, after one game, confessed that he had been using an online anagram finder (which, by the way, I do not – I’m far too vain to seek that kind of help). “And yet you still lost,” I said. Likewise, in other parts of life, you may feel like you have come out on top in an interaction – especially if you’re the sort of person who treats every conversation as a contest, or looks for ways of sucking the last nickel out of a customer – but you may very well lose out in the long run, because the people you “won” against won’t be inclined to let you “win” again in future.

2. It’s not how fancy your words are, it’s how you use them.
Many people think doing well at Scrabble is all about knowing and playing really nice words. It’s true that knowing a lot of words is very helpful, but often you get the most points (and improve your position the most) with plain, ordinary words. This is also true elsewhere in life: fancy words in the wrong place can fall flat, and the right ordinary words may score a lot of points.

3. Most of the time, the little words make the difference.
This is a thing most people learn before too long at Scrabble: big words may make big impacts, but little words – two-letter words that you make while playing alongside another word, and sometimes two-letter words played two ways on a triple – are crucial. Likewise in the rest of life, small words – though slightly longer than two letters, such as “Thanks!” – can really help make connections.

4. But sometimes the right big word can have quite an effect.
This should be obvious: the two previous points notwithstanding, impressive words are impressive, and used in the right place, they can score a lot of points.

5. Some things that appear to be worth the least can be worth the most.
Two of my fundamental rules in Scrabble are “Don’t waste an S” (meaning that if you use an S, the play should be worth at least 40 points, since you are very likely to be able to play a good word and also pluralize or conjugate a word already on the board orthogonally) and “A blank is a bingo” (meaning that a blank tile gives you the flexibility to make a play that uses all seven tiles, which will give you a 50-point bonus, and you do well to hold onto it until you can put it to that use). And yet an S says it’s worth one point and a blank is worth zero points on its own. Likewise in the rest of life, there are things that by themselves don’t seem worth a whole lot but make quite a lot of things possible. But what those things are will vary quite a bit, unlike in Scrabble.

6. Start by looking for where you’ll accomplish the most.
In Scrabble, if I can play a bingo, I will; if not, I look at any high-value tiles I have and see if I can use them on a double or a triple or even a double-double or double-triple. Then I work out the rest of the play on that basis. In the rest of life, similarly, if you come into a situation where there are different things you can do, see where you can put your best assets (skills, for instance) to best use.

7. Manage the board.
Many players play words without looking to see what they’re opening up or closing off on the board. They may make a great opportunity for their opponent (remember that this is a game that you are, in fact, playing to win). Or they may play a word that makes it very difficult to play any further in that area of the board. The play that’s worth the most points this turn isn’t always the play that’s worth the most points in the long run. Pay attention to what opportunities you create. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

8. Manage your rack.
It’s common to have times when you look at the tiles on your rack and see a motley and basically unplayable assortment of tiles. Some of the time this is just bad luck, but some of the time it’s because you played the easy-to-play tiles – or the biggest-point word – and left yourself with a mess, and the new tiles you drew didn’t rescue you. Do what you can to make sure you have a reasonable balance of vowels and consonants. Don’t have too many high-point letters (they seldom go together productively). In short, pay attention to what you’re leaving for yourself. And so, too, elsewhere in life.

9. It’s not a referendum on your intelligence.
Scrabble is just a game. And some people I know who are very smart aren’t all that good at it, because it requires a particular set of abilities and learned tactical skills. If someone beats you at Scrabble, oh well. You are not humiliated (though if you’ve made a lot of noise about how good you are at it, you sow what you reap). Most of the rest of life is not a game, but it, too, is almost never a referendum on your intelligence. Even really smart people aren’t good at everything – and can make mistakes at things they are good at. It’s OK. Own up, suck it up, move on. It’s just a thing you’re doing; it’s not the sum total of you.

10. There are always great plays you just can’t make.
“Aw, man! I had a great bingo on my rack and I had nowhere to play it!” This is a common complaint. There are two truisms, though. First, it’s not a great play if you can’t make it. Plays are made by what’s on your rack and what’s on the board. You don’t have a great play on your rack, only on the board, and only if the board allows. The rest is just “If I had a million dollars” stuff. Second, however often you notice a “great play you can’t make,” I guarantee you there are many more “great plays you can’t make” that you don’t notice – as well as great plays you could have made but didn’t notice. It’s just the way it is. You don’t always get the opportunity, and you don’t always notice when you do. But you notice more if you look more.

11. Always leave room for the other person to do something that helps you.
I generally prefer to play Scrabble in a way that creates openings. Partly it’s so if my opponent takes one opening, there will still be another opening for me to take. Partly it’s because if I’ve set it up right, my opponent’s gain will likely create an opening for me to gain even more. If I play in a way that closes off opportunities, yes, my opponent won’t be able to score big, but neither will I – and my opponent also won’t be able to make a play that will be useful to me. Most of the rest of life is not so competitive (or at least doesn’t have to be, and if you think it does, see number 1 above), but it holds true that you should leave room for others to do things that help you. And one really good way to do that is to help them. When you’re not playing a game like Scrabble where only one person can win, you might be able to help set it up so everyone wins.

12. If you count on getting lucky, you won’t; if you count on not getting unlucky, you will.
And if you count on the other person not getting lucky, they will. I don’t think I need to explain this too much. A short form of this might be “Hedge your bets.” If you make a play that’s worth decent points but creates an opportunity for the other person to score, say, 52 points if they just happen to have the X and an I, you will surprisingly often find forthwith that they do have the X and an I. This is in part because people often hold onto those high-value letters for several turns, so the chance of their having one is higher than a simplistic calculation of the odds would say. The short of it is that if you make plans that rely on things beyond your control going just so, they often will not come out as you wanted.

13. There’s no point in complaining about your tiles.
Everyone gets bad tiles from time to time; Scrabble is a game of chance as well as of skill. It’s not all that different from card games in many ways. If you’re not playing well because you keep drawing crap tiles no matter how much you try to manage your rack, so it goes. It happens to everyone. The game is not a referendum on your intelligence. Similarly, elsewhere in life, if things beyond your control aren’t lining up to let you display the true genius you want the world to recognize you as, consider (a) whether you are that true genius, (b) whether the person you’re complaining to is someone you had been hoping to show yourself as superior to, and (c) whether the person you’re complaining to might have experienced the same from time to time and not made a stink about it.

14. You can’t win all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with the other person winning some of the time.
Scrabble is a game you play to win, yes. But you get to play more than one game in life. Take the insight from point 1 and apply it here in the broader scope. People who win against you at least some of the time are more likely to want to keep playing against you. That’s not to say you should obviously throw games. But you could play a bit more loosely from time to time. And at least not get upset if you lose. Likewise in life, tomorrow is another day – usually.

15. Finish en beauté.
I took a course in syntax taught in French once, and we didn’t quite make it all the way through the text before the last class; the professor told us that we should read the remaining chapter if we wanted to finish “en beauté.” That literally means “in beauty” but idiomatically can mean “with a flourish” or “with panache.” I apply that when I play Scrabble: even if the game is nearly over and there is no doubt who will win (sometimes me, sometimes my opponent), I like to look for the best moves I can play. Because although the point of the game is to win, there’s still nothing wrong with enjoying the other aspects of it. And I can still do the best I can even if it’s just a flourish.

I can’t say that I apply all these lessons equally well to my life, but I can say that I have definitely gained useful perspective from them all. And, as I said, at the very least, they all help when playing Scrabble.

Words we love irrationally much

This article was originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada.

I asked people on Twitter about words they love irrationally much. I got quite a few responses. Actually, I got so many that when I tried to retweet them all, Twitter finally told me I had reached my daily tweet limit. And did again the next day.

The words that people love irrationally much are many and varied. But a few words came up again and again, and it’s interesting to see what they have in common. Continue reading

Does verbing impact the language?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly.

A favourite crank for language cranks to crank is the demon of verbing. It wrecks our language, they protest! They target such usages as impacted and referenced in business-speak and medalled in broadcasting. While liberal-minded linguists may see these words as just more of the odd flowers that bloom in the spring (and spring up throughout the year, for that matter), the grumblers want to weed them out.

Just recently, for instance, the Guardian gave column space to one Jonathan Bouquet, who fumes at such conversions and would like to bin them all. He welcomes loanwords, he protests, but “there are some constructions that still grate”: impacted and reference, for two, and “Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use ‘headquarter’ as a verb.” He especially dreads “the fullest flowering of such manglings” during the Olympics, with medal and podium used as verbs.

I honestly can’t tell whether Mr. Bouquet sincerely believes what he writes, or whether he’s taking the, uh, mickey. Although his position is extreme, there are many who hold the same views. But it’s not really the movement of words from one class to another that nettles them – it is the movement of people from one class into another. They dislike the words because they dislike the self-important upstarts who use them: barbarous posers putting on airs and commandeering the language.

I state this with confidence because when they air their grievances they nearly always characterize the sources of these usages peevishly, and because they inevitably use – without comment, without even noticing – words that are the product of exactly the same process: verbs that were nouns first, nouns that were verbs first, adjectives that were nouns first, and so on. They accept and use the fruits of conversion, except when someone they don’t fancy uses a word that looks new to them.

Do I overstate my case? Consider verbs Mr. Bouquet used gladly: grate, flower, mangle. If I look at the rest of his brief rant, I see also – used ingenuously – the verb monitor and the noun import. But take a look at the rest of what I’ve written here. How many words can you count that are regularly used as multiple classes of word? Let’s see: crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look… Look, whenever you scan a book (or book a scan), you’re sure to spy some verbing. English would not be English without it.

And if you’re fine with all those but not with impact, reference, medal, or podium as verbs, why is that? Is it because those latter four could be rephrased using existing words? Consider how many of the words you’re fine with could be paraphrased reasonably well. This is English. We are the ancient spice shop of languages. We have far more words than we need – but we can use them all to good effect. When we take dislikes to words, it’s almost always related to our ideas of the people who use them.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a word you don’t like. But it’s best to be clear on why you don’t like it.

Hebrew and Yiddish words, we have them

My last article for The Week was on words we got from Arabic. This time it’s words we got from Hebrew and Yiddish. You’ll probably know about some of these. You’ll probably be surprised by some others.

15 English words you probably didn’t know came from Hebrew and Yiddish


You can’t get through the day (or night) without Arabic

My latest article for The Week is on words that English got from Arabic. We’ve taken more than you might think, but I look at just 15… including some that you probably can’t go very long without.

15 English words we stole from Arabic

(PS Let me remind you that the magazine writes the title after I’ve written the article and sent it to them.)

Is 😂 a word?

My latest article for The Week looks at emoji and emoticons – little icons of facial expressions and gestures and objects – and asks two important linguistic questions: Are they words? And if so, what kind of words are they?

Is an emoji a word? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Who let that word into the dictionary?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.

A more delectable dictionary

Imagine a cookbook that only gave the ingredients for each recipe, with no instructions on how to put them together. Many dictionaries are like that: nothing but bare-bones denotative definitions for the words.

Now imagine a cookbook that included not just the instructions, not just different variants on how you can make the recipe, not even just menu suggestions and beverage matching suggestions, but also other recipes it would go with or remind you of or definitely not go with, and even things the food could or would make you think of – other dishes it would remind you of, other times and places and people.

I would like to have a dictionary that does all that for words.

Of course much of that is individual. Every word is one of Proust’s Madeleines, a key to places you have heard it and seen it and used it before. The way it sounds and how you feel about those sounds will provoke you differently from how it provokes others. But there are several aspects of a word’s extended meaning that users will have in common. Most of them show up in one kind of dictionary or another, but not all, and not all in the same place. Let’s look at how a dictionary that covers a fuller ambit of meaning and effect would handle… let’s say the words dude and fellow.


An important dimension of words is what they say about the speaker, the hearer, the subject, and the relation between them – what effect the speaker is trying to have on the hearer and what he or she is saying about what’s going on between them and any third party spoken of.

dude: Casual, informal. Friendly or mildly contemptuous, depending on overall relationship constructed. As an emphatic vocative, expressing some kind of amazement within a pointedly informal frame. (Read this good article by J.J. Gould for more.)

fellow: Intended to be neutral, but can be more formal, often with a taste of condescension.


Register is a key concept in sociolinguistics: your choice of vocabulary and syntax bespeaks a specific situation – it’s like putting on different clothes for different places and activities: clubbing, visiting family, working at the office, working in a hospital, etc. Words are known by the company they keep. Most dictionaries won’t go beyond saying something is formal, or colloquial, or medical jargon, if they go that far. But there is always more that can be said.

dude: Tends to be laddish, often with a sense of drug, surfer, or frat-boy culture; cowboy speech is also possible. Cannot be used for formal registers, except in archaic senses (meaning dandy or greenhorn).

fellow: Broadly usable, but in youthful and casual contexts may sound old-fashioned or formal. Suitable for friendly or pseudo-friendly versions of more formal speech. As a title (e.g., Fellow of the Royal Society), suitable for the most formal speech.


Many words have well-known travelling companions – common collocations, as linguists say. These are a word’s circle of close friends. There are dictionaries of collocations, often meant for students of English to help them know how to match their ties and socks, so to speak; there are also corpus databases that list words that tend to show up more often with them. Here are some results (mutatis mutandis) taken from www.wordandphrase.info:

dude: cool, fucking, sorry, funny, awesome, skinny, tall, like, weird, straight, ranch, dude, surfer, shit, fuck, chick, Chicano

fellow: senior, young, old, little, poor, visiting, postdoctoral, fine, nice, honorary, research, craft

Cultural references (including quotations)

Some words have the ability to call forth films or books or historical moments. Berliner can make a person think of Kennedy; cheeseburger can make many people think of endearing kittens with captions; frankly can call up Gone with the Wind. Traditional sources such as Bartlett’s should be complemented with current culture resources such as knowyourmeme.com and the auto-complete in Google searches (which can also be good for collocations). Note that fellow (noun) may arguably call forth references to fellow (adjective).

dude: Jeff Bridges as “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski (quote: “The Dude abides”); Dude, Where’s My Car? (movie); “Dude Looks Like a Lady” (song)

fellow: “Hail fellow, well met” (Jonathan Swift); “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” (Shakespeare); “fellow traveller” (mid-20th-century euphemism for Communist sympathizer); “Write me as one who loves his fellow-men” (Leigh Hunt, “Abou Ben Adhem”); “my fellow Americans” (standard in US political speeches)


Etymology is not inherent in our experience of a word; many people are quite oblivious to where their words come from, even as many – often some of the same – have the mistaken idea that a word’s “true” meaning is determined by its “original” meaning. But if you have an idea of a word’s origins, it will influence how you think of the word. This is true whether your idea is accurate or inaccurate. The words picnic and nitty-gritty are poisoned for many people who have false beliefs about their origins; the same people would never use bulldoze again if they knew where it came from – but most of them don’t. Many dictionaries supply etymological information, so I invite you to look it up on your own! And you will find that sometimes not all that much is known.

Rhymes and other echoes

Words will make us think of other words. Not just synonyms, which thesauruses and some dictionaries handily provide. And not just rhymes, which have their own dictionaries. There are other echoes that may contribute in some measure to the effect of a word – words that the word has some resemblance to in sound or appearance. Some non-rhyme examples:

dude: dud, dead, dad, deed, pube, dada, dildo, doobie, redo, stupid

fellow: fallow, follow, fuller, filler, fell, fail, allow, hello, willow, well, low, flow, cellophane


And then there’s the issue of the aesthetic effects of sound qualities, still a bit controversial, but some effects are well known, such as the association of high front vowels with smaller things.

dude: The main vowel sound is a low, hollow sound (it has the lowest resonances of all the vowel sounds), often associated with dullness and stupidity; the d sounds are not as crisp as t sounds but are on the tip of the tongue, which makes them comparatively light.

fellow: The e is fairly open and bright, while the l is soft and liquid, and the f is the quietest of the fricatives; the final ow is darker and more withdrawn but allows sustain.

Obviously a dictionary that included all of this would be rather thick, and would take a long time to put together. Some of it might benefit to some extent from a wiki-style approach, though one does have to be careful. But any added attention to these aspects of how a word communicated would help us all be more fully conscious and engaged users of the language – and would surely make our words more delectable.

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?

Iva Cheung has done up a nice, cogent, accurate summary of my presentation at the 2014 Editors’ Association of Canada conference. You can read it at www.ivacheung.com/2014/06/our-changing-language-when-does-wrong-become-right-james-harbeck-eac-conference-2014/.

The PowerPoint I used for the presentation can be downloaded from www.harbeck.ca/James/harbeck_wrong_right.pptx.

Badly broken words: the podcast

My article on words that are badly broken has been converted (in shortened form) to a podcast. Give it a listen if you want – it’s at theweek.com/article/index/264020/5-words-that-are-badly-broken.