Darryl Francis Talks About

Collins Official Scrabble Words

Darryl Francis

Darryl Francis heads the Dictionary Committee of the World English Scrabble Players Assocation (WESPA). And that committee is responsible for compiling Collins Official Scrabble Words (CSW) — the holy canon of Scrabble that is used, or at least should be used, to resolve all those ugly disputes about whether this word or that word should remain on the Scrabble board.

NOTE Just to confuse you, there are two official Scrabble dictionaries. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD), used in North America, and Collins Official Scrabble Words, used throughout the rest of the English-speaking world. I talked more about that subject in a recent newsletter.

It is a time-consuming and arduous job, but for the serious word buff it is also more than a little fascinating. And with the latest edition of this biblical tome about to be released into the critical hands of Scrabble aficionados, I thought it was a good time to ask a few questions.

Fortunately, Darryl was kind enough to answer them. In fact, if you'd like to add a comment or ask a question at the end of this interview, Darryl has agreed to watch this space and add his two cents from time to time. You can join in that post mortem here!

Can you tell us a bit about the guy in the picture?

I was born in London in 1948; went to school there; went to university to study physics at London’s Imperial College; and then did a master’s degree in computer science at London University. Then I worked in various IT jobs in London between 1971 and 2003.

I spent 14 years working in IT in Britain’s National Health Service; then worked in a variety of IT roles for Sainsbury’s, a British food retailer; then went to an airport retailer; then back to Sainsbury’s.

In 2003-04, I stopped working and moved to Cumbria, in the far north of England. I’ve got a wife, Ann, and two daughters, Jade and Ellie. Unfortunately, the Scrabble bug has not really rubbed off on any of them!

How far back does your love of words and wordplay go? Was it more or less evident from day one?

As a kid, I was always interested in numbers, number games and number puzzles, so it might seem a bit surprising that I’m also interested in words. My interest in words didn’t kick in until around 1966. I can point to three people who were essential catalysts in firing up my interest in words.

First was the late Martin Gardner, who wrote regular columns in Scientific American. His columns were usually about numbers and number oddities, but one month he did a review of a book about wordplay, the seminal Language on Vacation by Dmitri Borgmann.

I got hold of Borgmann’s book, started corresponding with him, and that pretty much cemented my interest in words and wordplay. Language on Vacation was only published in the USA, but secondhand copies can usually be picked up on Amazon and AbeBooks.

The third and enduring influence for me was Ross Eckler, longtime owner and editor of the American journal Word Ways: The Journal of Recreational Linguistics. Since the late 1960s, Ross has suggested many areas of wordplay investigation and has published many of my articles on wordplay.

I believe you've written extensively for Word Ways. Can you tell us a bit about that journal, and your articles?

As I said earlier, Word Ways was important to me in a couple of ways. The early editors – Dmitri Borgmann and Howard Bergerson – published some of my first wordplay offerings.

Longtime editor and owner Ross Eckler encouraged me to investigate numerous aspects of wordplay. Ross must have published well over a hundred articles and other pieces I’ve written over the years.

Darryl's Word Ways Collection

I’ve written articles on...

  • three-, four- and five-dimensional crosswords,
  • anagrams of all the US state-names,
  • anagrams of the names of the chemical elements,
  • the 150+ transposals of the letters AEINRST,
  • high-scoring Scrabble
  • colour names,
  • strange geographical names,
  • palindromes,
  • shiftgrams,
  • typewriter words,
and a host of other specialised wordplay subjects.

The journal is still published quarterly, although the ownership/editorship has passed on from Ross Eckler. For anyone interested, here is the link to the Word Ways website.

How does Scrabble fit in to your general devotion to words and wordplay - does it, and has it always, occupied the #1 position, and what other games and puzzles are right up there?

My interest in Scrabble stems from my more embracing interest in words. I didn’t discover Scrabble until about 1971, a few years after I’d “discovered” words and wordplay.

I guess that for most of the past 40 years Scrabble has taken a secondary position to my wider interest in words, their derivation and meaning, dictionaries, language, wordplay and word puzzles.

These days, my interest in words and wordplay is substantially greater than in Scrabble. I always solve the cryptic crossword in The Times newspaper every day, and that’s far more time than I give to playing Scrabble.

Back in the 80s you participated in the UK gameshow, Countdown. Can you describe the gist of that show and tell us about how you did?

I was the series 6 champion of Countdown in 1985 (on Britain’s Channel 4 tv station). The format was pretty straightforward. There were letter and word games, and number games.

In the letter and word games, you were presented with 9 letters, and had to make as long a word as possible. If your word was longer than your opponent’s word, you scored points; if the opponent’s word was longer, they scored points.

In the number games, you were given a mixture of smaller numbers and had to use these to make a randomly generated target number. Again, points were awarded for achieving the target or getting close to it.

I won 8 games outright, then came back to win a quarter-final, then a semifinal, and then a final, to emerge as the series champion.

Even in 1985, I had a pretty extensive vocabulary, so in the word games, I had several words which were hardly everyday words – including RAVELINS, NIELLO, TONNAGES, ZIRCON and the like.

Are television wordgame shows as popular today as they used to be? Are there any particularly successful ones around at the moment?

Countdown still runs on tv, but I don’t think I’ve watched it for years. I’m not aware of other wordgame shows which are running now, but there’s probably a few around, especially on the smaller, newer tv stations.

These days, I’m more interested in general knowledge quiz programs on tv, such as the UK’s Mastermind, The Chase and Eggheads.

Over the years, you've written a great deal about Scrabble. Can you list the main Scrabble books you've written or co-written. Is there a standout you're particularly proud of?

My earliest Scrabble offerings were articles which appeared in the 1970s magazine Games & Puzzles, of which I was the puzzles, competitions and Scrabble editor.

The earliest Scrabble book I wrote was a 40-page booklet in the British Know the Game series. I also wrote The Complete Book of Scrabble in 1980, which appeared over Gyles Brandreth’s name. And there was World Championship Scrabble which I did in 1992, based on various games played at the inaugural World Scrabble Championship in 1991. And I did How to Play Better Scrabble for Chambers in 1994.

But I guess that the longest-lived of my Scrabble titles have got to be Official Scrabble Words (OSW) and Official Scrabble Lists (OSL). OSW was first published by Chambers in 1988, went through various editions for Chambers, and then became a Collins publication. But more about them later.

What about spinoffs from any of those books – television and the like?

Actually, it worked the other way round.

My book World Championship Scrabble was a spinoff from a tv series I did on the 1991 World Scrabble Championship (WSC). The first WSC was staged in 1991, and I was asked to record a series of five programs for BBC2 tv, along with celebrity Alan Coren, commenting on five of the games.

The program ran on five consecutive days on BBC2 tv, and garnered some very satisfying reviews in the national press – not quite what you’d expect, given the usual media stance of sneering at Scrabble.

Over the years since then, many Scrabble players have contacted me to say that this tv program was their introduction to Scrabble. They saw the programs, acquired the game, started playing and got hooked.

You are of course, one of many authors of Scrabble books over the years. Is anybody allowed to write a book about Scrabble nowadays, or does the author need to be 'sponsored' by Mattel or Hasbro.

My experience of writing about Scrabble is that I’ve always been approached by a publisher to write a particular volume. I’ve no experience of writing a book which I’ve then had to find a publisher for.

I guess that anyone wanting to write a book about Scrabble and to use the name and refer to particular attributes of the tiles and board and so on ought to approach the appropriate copyright or trademark holder, Mattel or Hasbro.

How did you first get involved in the task of creating an official Scrabble dictionary?

The earliest OSW came about because of the frustration felt by Scrabble players in the 1970s and 1980s that there was no direct equivalent to the American Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

Players were fed up with having to use a dictionary (Chambers at that time) and make educated guesses about whether particular derived forms were valid or not, or even where a particular out-of-alphabetical-order word might be found in the dictionary!

Once OSW had been published, it seemed only sensible to develop the OSL series — words grouped together according to various criteria, in order to make learning and familiarisation more orderly than just scanning down a straight alphabetical list.

The latest Collins Official Scrabble Words and Collins Official Scrabble Lists are due for publication in Britain in May 2011, and both are endorsed by WESPA, the World English-language Scrabble Players Association.

The expectation is that WESPA will adopt the new wordlist for play from the beginning of 2012, but that’s a decision WESPA still has to take a view on.

Allan Simmons has been my co-compiler for the various OSWs and OSLs through the years, although en route there have been other helpers whose input has been invaluable.

Either you're a glutton for punishment, or you very much enjoy reading dictionaries and compiling lists. What is it about this process you enjoy, and what do you find tedious and irritating about it?

It’s probably not surprising that I have an extensive collection of dictionaries.

Darryl's Dictionaries

I have all the obvious big-name dictionaries...

  • the Oxford English Dictionary,
  • Webster’s 1st, 2nd and 3rd New International dictionaries,
  • the long out-of-print Century Dictionary,
  • numerous dictionaries from Funk & Wagnall’s, Random House, American Heritage, Chambers, Collins, Nuttall,
  • and a host of dictionaries from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I also have a wide range of specialist dictionaries, for example...

  • English dialect,
  • US dialect,
  • slang,
  • underworld jargon,
  • military slang,
  • Australian English,
  • Jamaican English,
  • Middle English,
  • Scots,
  • medical dictionaries,
  • technical dictionaries,
and so on.

I even have a couple entitled The Cyclopedic Lexicon of Sex and the widely acclaimed The F Word. As well as dictionaries, I have gazetteers, biographical dictionaries, and other extensive lists of proper names.

My library also includes thesauruses (thesauri), books of new words, quotations, proverbs, limericks,slogans, crossword solvers, and journals and magazines about different aspects of words and language.

I have word puzzle magazines dating back to the 1880s. Beyond dictionaries and word books, I have numerous books on the history and science (art?) of lexicography and dictionary-making. All of these can be mined for material on wordplay!

Yes, I guess I do like compiling lists. But if they’re going to be too long, I do tend to get a bit bored. But working on a volume like OSW isn’t really about compiling one long list. The work gets broken down into a variety of sub-lists, each with some particular attribute.

For example, words newly appearing in Collins dictionary, derived forms of those new words, words which have added a new part of speech, new foreign phrases, further consideration of the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives. And so on.

Smaller lists tend to make the process more manageable, and progress is easier to measure, too.

Why do we need an official Scrabble dictionary? I've heard a few people say that arguing whether a word should be allowed is the most educational part of the game. What do you think?

As I mentioned earlier, British Scrabble players in the 1970s and 1980s did not have an official wordlist which could rule on a word’s acceptability.

Players used to look up words in a dictionary (usually Chambers at the time) and attempt to deduce the validity of a plural form, or an adverb, or a comparative or superlative form, and so on.

As a forerunner to OSW, I’d produced a booklet for the London Scrabble League providing some guidance on how to interpret the wide range of labels that Chambers used in its dictionary – labels such as ‘archaic’, ‘obsolete’,‘obsolete except archaic’ and so on.

Variant spellings was another area where reading the dictionary could lead to confusion. For example, one of the editions of Chambers used to have the entry GAL(L)ABI(Y)A(H) – you could argue endlessly about which of the variant spellings implied by this were actually valid!

Interrupting a game of Scrabble to have a protracted argument about whether a particular word should be allowed or not is hardly conducive to keeping a game going, and isn’t likely to do much for the tempers of the players involved.

A straightforward list of all allowable words was needed.

Can you clarify the division of responsibilities in creating Collins Scrabble Words (CSW)? Specifically, what is the division of ownership and responsibility between Mattel, Collins, WESPA and its Dictionary Committee?

There's several questions there!

Collins has an agreement with Mattel that they (Collins) can publish a Scrabble wordlist.

Collins also has an agreement with WESPA that the book will be endorsed by WESPA because of the significant input from the WESPA dictionary committee.

For the new wordlist (the one due in May 2011), Collins agreed that the WESPA dictionary committee could fully determine which words would be added to the wordlist and which would be removed from it.

In the early stages of preparation of the new wordlist, Collins were particularly helpful in generating computerized lists of new words and phrases in the latest edition of their dictionary.

Collins were also asked to produce lists of words that had updated parts of speech and new definitions, as it was possible that these amendments might generate newly valid or invalid Scrabble words.

But the final say as to what was included and what deleted lay with the WESPA dictionary committee.

The task of deciding which words are in and which words are out is obviously an extremely difficult and controversial one. Can you give three examples of words (or classes of words) that have been really controversial and/or troublesome, and outline the reasons for your ultimate decisions.

The WESPA dictionary committee (Allan Simmons and I) determined appropriate derived forms – plurals, verb forms, comparatives & superlatives, and adverbs.

Where dictionaries didn’t make it clear whether – for example – a verb ending in –L had a single-L or double-L or both in its verb forms, we had to make a judgment.

We had to consider the extent to which –ISE and –IZE endings could be interchanged. We also considered which words from multi-word phrases should be admitted as valid, and whether they allowed for derivative forms such as plurals and verb forms.

We have been exercising these judgments for around 24 years now, so are pretty much attuned to the issues, and there are very few decisions which are particularly difficult. To instance some specific areas of difficulty, though ....

  • One of our source dictionaries has the term WU CYCLE; should we allow WU or not? Making the decision on just one item like this involved numerous emails, telephone calls and consultation with various leading Scrabble players.
  • One of the source dictionaries has RIOT GRRRL; should we allow GRRRL and a possible plural GRRRLS?
  • What should we do about dictionary-listed items such as iTunes (lowercase I, uppercase T)?
  • Internet domain names for countries (such as UK, FR and ZM) are usually spelled in lowercase, and are not entered in dictionaries as abbreviations – should we allow these?

Deletion of words is another thorny area. Many words which have appeared in previous editions of our source dictionaries have now disappeared or changed their format (e.g. have become hyphenated or two-word terms).

While Scrabble players do not wish to unlearn words, they have indicated a desire that the official wordlist be based on one or two dictionaries, so when a word becomes invalid in a dictionary, should we continue to allow it or should we disallow it?

By and large, we have disallowed words which have disappeared or been respelled in an unacceptable way. See the new Official Scrabble Words to see what we decided.

In making a decision about which words will be legal in Scrabble, for words not covered explicitly in the statement of the original rules, is any respect paid to the 'spirit of intent' of the game's creator, Alfred Butts?

Probably not! Although we still stick with the standard rules about nonacceptability of words spelled with an initial capital letter, or a hyphen, or an apostrophe.

But I guess that Alfred Butts had a view that a word should only be allowed if everyone knew it, and that acceptability shouldn’t be determined by the specifics of if and how a word is listed in a dictionary.

While I respect Butts for his origination of the game and his faith in the product, it does seem that the game and its rules were introduced in an era of “gentlemanly gamesmanship”. Things have moved on since then.

You can hardly play Scrabble on an international basis,or even internet basis, where players are expected to argue the merits and demerits of a particular word. An authoritative source is needed.

To what extent does the selection of words impact the strategic element of a Scrabble game. Can you tell us about a word or two that will be introduced in the next edition of CSW that will probably have a significant strategic impact on the game?

For many years, Scrabble was played with words where the Q tile needed to be followed by a U tile. Things changed some years back with the advent of U-less Q-words such as QAT, QANAT, TRANQ and so on. And then QI and its plural QIS came on the scene.

Those words made the Q tile much less of a problem, and – indeed – provided some very useful scoring opportunities. The new wordlist will allow the word QIN (a Chinese musical instrument with strings).

Computer simulation has already confirmed that this will become the most significant new word, overtaking QAT in frequency of play, because of its being a hook for both QI and IN.

FIQH is another new word, notable for its Q but without a U — but it’s hardly likely to have the impact which QIN will have.

However, I must emphasise that words are not selected for allowability on the basis of whether they will or won’t impact the strategic element of the game. Words are assessed on whether they’re in the source dictionary or not.

So... Suppose a word, or set of words, came along that satisfied the rules of Scrabble, but which really ruined the game strategically, in the unanimous opinion of regular players. Would you consider leaving the word/s out?

Possibly.

Let’s go back to a group of dictionary entries I mentioned earlier – the internet domain names for countries. There’s around 200 of these, running from AC (Ascension Island) to ZW (Zimbabwe). They appear to satisfy the criteria for acceptability of words.

They’re not dictionary-listed with an initial capital letter, nor a hyphen nor an apostrophe. They’re not marked as abbreviations, they’re not marked as foreign. On what basis should they not be allowed as two-letter words?

Yet to allow a sudden influx of two-letter words, most of which are unpronounceable and not recognisable to the man in the street, would be to upset the fine balance that already exists with two-letter words.

Two-letter words are so key to the game that to double their number overnight would almost certainly provoke an outcry from Scrabble players – and probably the media, too.

I think you can probably guess what decision was eventually taken about inclusion of these items.

It is widely accepted that there were some serious shortfalls in the first edition of CSW. What would you say went wrong in the first edition, and how have the problems been addressed?

Collins’ first attempt at a Scrabble wordlist was Collins Scrabble Words 2005. This was produced without input from myself, Allan Simmons, or anyone from the Scrabble movement.

The book contained innumerable words which were not in the Collins Dictionary (or other dictionaries) and which had been generated by mechanically adding prefixes and suffixes to a range of otherwise acceptable words.

That book was never adopted by the Scrabble world. It was as a result of that fiasco that Allan Simmons and I became involved with Collins in order to produce the real first edition of Collins Scrabble Words – the volume published in 2007 – which is still the current edition.

There were a few problems with that volume – the occasional word omitted, and quite a few comparative & superlative forms of adjectives omitted. We weren’t happy with the treatment of plurals of New Zealand and Maori words, either. But the new edition – the one due May 2011 – corrects those problems.

Can you tell us a bit about the Scrabble word books Collins will be publishing in the next edition? Will there be three volumes corresponding to 'Words', 'Lists', and 'Definitions', like last time, for example? When are we likely to see the next edition of CSW in our local bookshops?

There will be two volumes scheduled for publication at the same time – Official Scrabble Words and Official Scrabble Lists. There will not be a corresponding “definitions” book, or Collins Scrabble Dictionary.

Many of the definitions in the current Collins Scrabble Dictionary fall short of the high standards adopted for OSW and OSL, and a significant amount of effort will be required to update the definitions.

Currently, Allan Simmons and I are not doing any work in this area, although I believe there is some work going on at Collins to address the problems.

Hmmm... So we still don’t have an international OSPD exactly? Obviously you have had to work through all the definitions painstakingly in order to establish the words that will be included in CSW? Could this work be leveraged by Collins to fix the definitions in their Scrabble Dictionary?

Not really.

The only words that were specifically examined in the dictionary were those which were new or had had their definition or part of speech changed in some way. That’s barely 1% of the total dictionary. The remaining 99% would also need examining.

Having said that, even the examination of the 1% was only to assess validity as a Scrabble word and give consideration to derivative forms. The definitions weren’t then captured or recorded in any way.

The upside of an up-to-date Scrabble dictionary, of course, is an accurate lexicon, but the downside is the constant learning/unlearning of words that goes with it. How often do you think the official Scrabble dictionary should be updated?

The new wordlist will admit around 2800 new words and remove around 400 previously allowed words. If you think of that as having to learn around 3200 new pieces of information, that’s only just over 1% of the current word book (around 260,000 words), hardly a dramatic number.

Further, the new wordlist will likely be accompanied by an “initiation” booklet, summarising the key new words – those with a J, Q, X or Z, multi-vowel words, high-probability seven- and eight–letter words, and so on.

As for the frequency with which a new wordlist should be published, I would suggest no more than once every 4 years. I know that many Scrabble players don’t want to learn new words, but I’m consistently contacted by Scrabble players to ask why such-and-such a word isn’t allowed, and when will we add it to the official wordlist.

I’m pulled in both directions. I think that a new wordlist every 5 years or so would satisfy most players.

Many find it frustrating, especially with the globalization of Scrabble through the internet, that the world of English speaking Scrabble has two official lexicons rather than one (I've written about that here). Do you think the existence of two official dictionaries is a good thing or a bad thing for Scrabble, or is it just a necessary evil? Do you see this state of affairs being any different ten years from now?

My view is that a single Scrabble wordlist would be beneficial.

Apart from North America, the rest of the world appears to have realised this and adopted the Collins Scrabble wordlist. And there’s plenty of evidence that many North Americans are keen to switch to the same official lexicon.

What appears to be holding back the remainder of North America is that great rump of players who have known nothing else but the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary and who have no intention or desire to play to a more interesting and invigorating lexicon.

I continue to be amazed at how a country like Thailand manages to support such a large and strong Scrabble-playing population where both English and its alphabet are not indigenous. If Thailand can handle the larger lexicon, I see no reason for North America not to.

More power to the North American players who are playing to the Collins lexicon both outside and inside North America, and attempting to promote wider use of the Collins lexicon in the USA and Canada.

Will the imminent Collins update attempt to incorporate the upcoming changes in the North American lexicon? It seems all but impossible to keep them in synch when the two dictionaries are published to different schedules, right?

I don't believe that there are any imminent updates for the North American lexicon.

Throughout the project to create the new Collins wordlist, the WESPA dictionary committee has been in touch with various key Scrabble players in North America. All the messages we've received indicate that there are other priorities, and that there will not be an update in the North American lexicon for some years.

However, the general point is valid - successive updates to the North American and worldwide lexicons will keep leapfrogging each other. So that's yet another reason for North America and the rest of the world to move to one common lexicon.

Has there ever been any pressure for Mattel to follow in Hasbro's footsteps and introduce a 'family-friendly' (i.e. expurgated) version of the official Scrabble dictionary?

‘Pressure’ is probably not the right word. Off its own bat, Collins has produced its Gem Scrabble Dictionary, a very small dictionary of Scrabble words, suitably expurgated and downsized.

I had no part in its production, and don’t really know who a dictionary like this appeals to. It’s probably bought by Scrabble-unaware parents and grandparents to offload onto total novices.

And finally, on a lighter note, how much Scrabble do you get to play nowadays?

When I lived in London (until late 2003), I regularly played in the London Scrabble League (weekly), the Middlesex League (monthly), maybe 8-10 Scrabble tournaments per year, as well as several ad hoc events – perhaps a total of 250-300 games a year.

Since moving much further north to Cumbria, the frequency of my Scrabble playing has gone south! There are no local leagues or clubs, and I only manage to play in 2-3 tournaments a year – barely 20-30 games. I do play on Facebook, but that’s no real alternative for face-to-face play. I used to play on the International Scrabble Club (ISC), but have even let that fade away.

Hmmm... By the looks of your study, there's another place you like to play too ;-)

Darryl Francis Scrabble Rug

End of Interview
All responses are copyright Darryl Francis, 2011

BTW If you enjoyed this interview you can let me know in a microsecond by clicking the 'Like' button. It's a small thing, but it helps motivate me to write more ;-)

Best of luck to WESPA and its Dictionary Committee with the 2011 publication of Collins Official Scrabble Words. And thanks a bunch Darryl for taking so much time to answer all my tedious questions — I'm sure the Scrabble community, and Word Buff visitors in general, will appreciate it immensely.

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