Everyone probably knows what Scrabble is, but I’ll explain it anyway. It’s a board game. The board consists of a 15 by 15 grid of squares and there are 100 playing pieces marked with a letter of the alphabet and a point value. Players use their pieces to spell out words on the grid, always intersecting with previously played words. Many squares have value modifiers that alter the scoring of a word, but, generally, each word is scored by the modified sum of its letters’ points.

I enjoy Scrabble. It’s not that I have a lot of fun playing Scrabble, because Scrabble isn’t really fun. My enjoyment doesn’t come from any sort of sense of superiority, either: I’m not very good at Scrabble. The simple fact may be that I enjoy it because it’s an interesting and somewhat pointless endeavor. These seem to catch my interest. My belief, though, is that Scrabble is interesting mostly because it forces one to think about words in a way completely contrary to the normal way.

Normally, we think about words in three ways: Definitionally, representatively, and phonetically. For example, we might wonder or ask:

What words mean the plot of ground about a sundial?

That’s definitional. We’re looking for a word based on its meaning, and if we’re lucky, we can think of the word we want: wabe. We do this all the time when talking. Usually, it’s not quite volitional: we have a meaning to express and we do so effortlessly through language, picking out the right words as we go. When we ask definitional questions, we’re phrasing them in terms of other definitions, which in turn recurse to further definitions. To answer the question above, we must first know “plot”, “ground”, “sundial”, and the articles and pronouns. Eventually, these questions become representative.

What is the word for the object of which I am thinking?

That’s a representative question. It’s a lot like a definitional question, but the profound difference is that we phrase it in terms of a concept, and not a word. This is an interesting phenomenon, especially considering the fact that some hermeneutical philosophers (like Gadamer) believe that all thought and experience is worded, meaning that it occurs through language. Still, there are moments of confusion when one can see an object in one’s mind eye and find no way to name or describe it. It is worth noting that being able to describe an object in words but not name it is a definitional problem, but that merely conceiving of an object (or quality, relationship, or action) without finding words to describe it is a representative problem.

What’s a word that starts with the letter Q and rhymes with spinach?

That’s a phonetic question. Here, we don’t care what the word means or represents. We only care how it sounds. It’s interesting to note, here, that we often answer these questions by listing sounds that match and then asking ourselves if they are words at all. This may be the closest normal method of word-handling to Scrabble.

These queries can be stacked, too. Writing poetry, we might look for a word meaning “love” that rhymes with “esophagus”.

Scrabble, though, asks us to find words anagrammatically. That is, we are given a set of letters (not, it is important to note, sounds) and asked to come up with a word. Further, I would describe Scrabble’s question as weighted and restricted. It is weighted because one is rewarded disproportionately for using certain letters and positions. It is restricted because every possible answer is not allowed. The player must build from an existing word and may not intersect other words when the intersection will create gibberish.

Anagrams, words formed by rearranging the letters of other words, have been around for a long time. They’re still a popular word game, and it’s interesting that Scrabble calls itself a “crossword game” and not an “anagram game.” Crosswords pose definitional questions, and Scrabble does not quibble over meaning. I believe it’s because many more people enjoy crosswords than enjoy anagrams, despite the fact that anagram games (“Word Scrambles”) still appear in most daily newspapers and game books. Why should one form of word question be more popular than another?

Meanings of words (especially roots) are often nearly arbitrary on the surface: why is a cat called a cat? Partly because of this, we must ask representative questions. These provide a direct route from perceive object to representing word.

Other words are composite, and can be decompiled into root words to find a pointer to meaning. For example “asynchronous” is a composition of “a”(not), “syn” (together with), and “chronos” (time). It means “not at the same time”. Words like these are excellent for asking and answering definitional questions, because a properly constructed compound word can answer its own definitional question.

Finally, the sounds of spoken words are compiled from the words’ component letters, and a heard word can be decompiled from sound into letters. Although the phonetic (sound to spelling) relationship is not one-to-one in most phonetic languages, it is not arbitrary. With relatively few exceptions, a literate person can pronounce any written word and write any pronounced word with a fair degree of accuracy, answering phonetic questions.

While those three types of query are specific to words, anagrammatic rearrangement can be applied to any sequence of items, even if the sequence is meaningless. As the letters of a word may be reorganized, so may be the digits of a number, the words of a sentence, or notes of a musical composition. Anagrams of words are especially interesting, though, because the meanings of created words are almost completely unrelated to their component letters, and the sounds of created words are only marginally more related. Further, while “veftacrol” is an anagram of “Lovecraft”, “volt farce” seems preferable because it has meaning. “Volt farce” answers the anagrammatic question, but why is the question asked? Only for word games.

That suggests, to me, that because Scrabble is based on a skill of no immediate use, it is either a purely intellectual exercise with no practical analogue, or it is, itself, the analogue of another form of practical intellectual activity that I cannot name. I am tempted to believe the latter, but for no other reason than this: I like Scrabble. I want it to mean something.

Written on November 1, 2002