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The Great Debate: SOWPODS vs. OSPD

Since the first World SCRABBLE® Championship in 1991, all participating players have had to learn both the American and British word sources. Until then, most nations used only one word source, either the Official SCRABBLE® Players Dictionary (OSPD) or the British Official SCRABBLE® Words (OSW). Since that time there have been five World SCRABBLE® Championships, where both the North Americans and the British have dominated. In order to improve their World Championship skills and be more competitive, many nations have opted to use both word sources for all their club and tournament games. Notable exceptions have been North America (U.S. and Canada), Great Britain and Israel. Recently, players from both SCRABBLE® game superpowers have debated amongst themselves the merits of changing over to SOWPODS (OSPD + OSW). In fact, this August England will be using SOWPODS as its reference for the 2000 British SCRABBLE® Championship.

The NSA has recently sent a referendum to all of our North American resident NSA members, asking them to vote on which word source they prefer. By NSA Advisory Board decree, a 60% majority vote for SOWPODS is the minimum requirement for proposing the change to Hasbro. In the past, we've published a few individual opinions on this issue in order to educate our players on the pros and cons. At this time we're allowing website# space for some distinguished and respected players to voice their opinion.

Offering the Pro-SOWPODS view are Bob Lipton (FL) and Steve Polatnick (FL). Lipton has played on four WSC American teams (1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999) while Polatnick played on the 1995 and 1999 team. Lipton also serves on the Dictionary Committee, which compiled the changes that brought about the new Official Tournament and Club Word List, which supplanted the Official SCRABBLE® Players Dictionary, 3rd Edition for sanctioned club and tournament play.

Against the prospect of unifying the word sources are Jan Dixon (DE) and Lynn Cushman (NY). Dixon is a strong expert player, a past Advisory Board member and currently serves on the Rules Committee. Cushman is also a strong expert player and a member of the Dictionary Committee. Neither has played in a World Championship.

"#" denotes a British-only word. "$" denotes an OSPD3-only word.


BOB: Let's unite the American and British SCRABBLE® game dictionaries.

STEVE: Definitely.

BOB: The international trend toward a universal word list is gathering momentum, but U.S. players for the most part are clinging to the dictionary they know and are comfortable with. The OSPD has served us well for more than 20 years. Why change?

STEVE: A few of us have had first-hand experience playing with a combined British and American word list. The British equivalent of the OSPD is Official SCRABBLE® Words (OSW). The infusion of 25,000 British words enhances our beloved game dramatically. These additions make the game better, and they make it more fun. We also believe that a Universal Word Source (UWS) acceptable to all English-language players is highly desirable objective.

BOB: We're not knocking the traditional OSPD game. We've loved it and devoted our lives to it. But a few years of playing double dictionary have taught us that even the greatest game in the world can be improved.

The success and excitement of the world tournaments has increased support for uniting the dictionaries for all club and tournament play. Some players, however, oppose unification, fearing the burden of learning new things, or objecting to the unfamiliarity of some of the British words.

STEVE: Based on our own experiences and study, we strongly support unification because BRITISH WORDS ARE INTERESTING AND ENJOYABLE.

BOB: What are some of these British words that are not recognized in America?

STEVE: WASM - an outmoded policy, belief, enthusiasm; an ism of the past; IMPANATE - embodied in bread (just like INCARNATE means embodied in flesh); DOSEH - a religious ceremony where a sheik or dervishes rode on horseback over the prostrate bodies of his followers; RUNFLAT - (of a tire) able to be safely driven on for a considerable distance when punctured; ICHABOD - (interjection) the glory is departed!; ZIPTOP - having the top opening fastened with a zipper.

BOB: Those words would certainly enrich our language. I think what really matters, besides the fact that British words are interesting and enjoyable, is that the game is so much better with the influx of words that give you more options. Horror racks aren't so horrible with AIA, AULOI, EUOI, FYRD, HWYL, IO, MOOI, OI, OO, OU, OUIJA, TWP and VOULU are available.

STEVE: Wow! Words like that could juice up a game.

BOB: Twenty-five 2-letter words are British-only. Overlap possibilities are much more numerous, which lead to higher-scoring games, usually more open and exciting. Too many OSPD games are over after the first half-dozen moves, if one player is unfortunate enough to have to exchange tiles a couple of times while the opponent is putting bingos down and then starts shutting down the board.

STEVE: OSPD has some glaring holes. Many of us have favorite words that don't appear in the American list. I go to a restaurant every week and see a pitcher labeled$ UNSWEET#. What about FASTERS#, people who fast? I went to a lecture about the planet Mars, and the speaker stated, as if referring to something everyone knew, that most Martian$ rocks are DACITE# and BASANITE#.

BOB: It's true that Chambers, the source dictionary for OSW, needs refinement and there will never be a Word Source that is "all things to all players." However, uniting the dictionaries will plug many holes in both our word lists, and create a more comprehensive and satisfying word source.

STEVE: How often has it happened that the outcome of a game hinges on who draws the Q late in the game? Well, British players have a secret weapon. It is QI, defined as an individual person's life force, the same word Americans know as CHI. But now it allows a player about to be stuck with the Q to plunk it down next to an unoccupied I and save the day. U.S. players will enjoy being able to do this.

BOB: It may be regarded as subjective when we say that SOWPODS is more fun to play. But consider how hard it is to find anyone with SOWPODS experience who says otherwise. Also consider that for years, Australian players had a choice of participating OSPD, OSW and SOWPODS sections. It was the single-dictionary sections that died out from lack of participation. Given a fair test, SOWPODS was the choice of the people. Consider also that in almost every nation where English-language SCRABBLE® game play exists, SOWPODS is now the lexicon of choice.

STEVE: These changes will make it possible to play anybody, anytime. There is a strong trend all over the world to unite in higher unities. Europe has installed a common currency. Latin America and other regions are forming common markets and free trade zones. Companies like Mercedes© and Chrysler© are merging across international frontiers. The Internet# unites people in disregard of national boundaries. The high points of each culture are being absorbed. There are sushi bars in Peoria, and McDonalds© in Moscow and Beijing.

BOB: A UWS makes it possible for us to enjoy the game with anyone on the globe-a globe that is shrinking all the time. Even if you're not an international traveler, and have never had such a guest in your home, chances are you'll be playing on the Internet# someday, if not already.

STEVE: Let's take the game into the 21st century, and ensure that it can endure the competition from virtual reality and interactive games.

BOB: The 10-year-old kid who lives next door will have his own email# address at school. How soon before our game is played by school kids globally on the Net?

STEVE: The potential for our game to grow and reach a worldwide audience is enormous. We need to act now so that organizers can nurture and recruit these youngsters and others.

BOB: SOWPODS is already the UWS of choice on the Internet#. As a lexicon, it could stand improvement, only because both OSPD and OSW are imperfect. Efforts to modernize OSW, and to make the OSPD3 more consistent, are likely to increase if SOWPODS is adopted.

STEVE: If you've already put a considerable effort into achieving proficiency with the OSPD, you may feel deterred by the weirdness of some of the British words, or the extra effort it would take to learn them. Our experience has taught us that such concerns are not as serious as they seem.

BOB: Back when I started learning OSPD in 1986, I blinked when I saw ABA, ABO$, AVA, AVO$, ATRESIA, ASTERIA, BARITES, TERBIAS$ and all the rest. After overcoming the initial culture shock, I learned enough words to be competitive. And it was fun doing it. Weirdness is in the eye of the beholder anyway. Just a few years ago, SUQ, MOANER, LUTZ and UPLINK were all British-only.

STEVE: If SOWPODS is adopted, ARTESIAN#, INTERNET# and DISCOER# will become plain old ARTESIAN, INTERNET and DISCOER. And of course, DA# gets to be DA again.

BOB: And here's another reason why culture shock will not be a huge problem. Serious home players, the ones who eventually show up at clubs and tournaments, would have already gravitated to the official list, just as in the past many new players have arrived at club already acquainted with OSPD.

STEVE: Transition may be difficult, but different ideas have been proposed to ease the way. For example, the free challenge rule used in the world tournaments means that if you challenge an unfamiliar British word, you do not lose your turn. One thing is sure, though. We have observed that every person who plays even a little bit with the unified list ends up strongly favoring it over the current system. This is true of both authors of this article, who started as "aginners" before we gave SOWPODS a try, but now know just how enjoyable the game can be with the enhanced word list.


The proposed unification of the OWL and the OSW would be detrimental to both the present and future of our game. It would require the inclusion of an untold number of outlandish so-called words, negatively impact defensive strategy and alienate players of all levels.

The adoption of SOWPODS would trigger the addition of some 25,000 words, of which there are roughly 1500 two-, three- and four-letter words. We thoroughly reviewed the list of these proposed twos, threes and fours, culling those that rang familiar. To give the proposed changes the benefit of the doubt, we employed a liberal acceptance standard, yet culled only an astonishingly low 3.5%. The remaining 96.5% were unrecognizable and/or unfathomable, many falling into a category of apparent nonsense syllables and seemingly random letter combinations. Do we really want to incorporate into our game what appears to many of us as sheer gobbledygook? This is certainly a far cry from the English$ language, as we know it.

Unlike SOWPODS, three previous revisions/updates of our word source, though somewhat disruptive, lent themselves to reasonable assimilation. Not only were the lists of additional words not overwhelming in size, but more importantly, the words themselves reflected a genuine understanding of our written and spoken language. Consider, for example, the following excerpt (inflections omitted) from the list of words that became acceptable for play in 1996: EQUID, ERGATIVE, ETOUFFEE$, EXPAT, EYEBAR$, EYEDROPS$, EYEWEAR$. There are all words that we know or that intuitively make sense to us. Now contrast these with the following excerpts (inflections omitted) from the OSW proposed additions: EA, EE, EUK, EWK, EWT, EUGE, EUGH, EUOI, EVET. Does the allure of having more "game pieces" warrant the inclusion of such absurdities into our word list?

Equally important, defensive strategies would be seriously hampered by SOWPODS. With the proposed additions "V" would remain the only unhookable tile and there would be many more hookable words. Moreover, part of the beauty and complexity of the game is found in such decision-making as what to do when a player's all-one-point-tiles bingo won't play or, conversely, how to defend against your opponent's bingo. Our current word list encourages and even requires the development of high-level creative and analytical thinking necessary to solve these problems. On the other hand, the proposed expansion of the two and three-letter word list would minimize the necessity for such strategic decisions by allowing rote placement of far more bingos with far less thought. Must every bingo we pick go down on the board?

What is the best for the future of our game? We certainly want to attract new players and generate public interest and recognition. Newcomers see the SCRABBLE® game as a "word" game. Who among us has not heard the newcomer's expression of disbelief and dismay. "That's a word?!" Thrusting 25,000 more letter clusters at them will not entice them to participate in our club and tournament scene. In addition, public interest in our game is partly generated by our enthusiasm. If we as players cannot relate to these words, how can the general public? Let's take this one step further, Merriam-Webster, Inc. (M-W), currently publishes a recreational/school edition of the SCRABBLE® game dictionary which serves as an introduction to standardize play for the majority of people. Unless M-W could and/or would publish the updated word list the gap between a newcomer's vocabulary and a tournament player's would be vast. We should be making it easier for the public to join us rather than risk losing these potential players. Furthermore, the majority of tournament players have become attached to their electronic dictionaries. The most popular one would be rendered virtually useless by such a major overhaul and as of now there are no plans for an updated model.

International play does, of course, have a certain appeal. However, our game, unlike tennis, skiing and other sports or games, will never be truly international because it is language-based. Furthermore, separate word sources have not precluded international play. Those players who choose to play with a "foreign" word source when visiting another country or participate in the word championships remain free to do so. There are all types of adjustments required when traveling overseas; when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

To foist the drastic change embodied by SOWPODS on the North American SCRABBLE® game population would be grossly unfair and unwarranted. For twenty years, club and tournament players have been honing their game based on a stable lexicon. The introduction of thousands of unrecognizable words, the deleterious effect on defensive strategy and the alienation of many present and potential players are totally unacceptable. SOWPODS is simply an idea whose time has not come!

HASBRO is the owner of the registered SCRABBLE® trademark in the United States and Canada. © 2011 HASBRO. All rights reserved. "SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game" is the proper way to refer to this unique group of word games and related properties marketed by HASBRO. "SCRABBLE®" is not a generic term. To use it as such is not only misleading but also does injustice to the company responsible for the trademark's longtime popularity. All we ask is that when you mean SCRABBLE® Brand Crossword Game, you say so. 

The SCRABBLE® trademark is owned by J.W. Spear and Sons, PLC, a subsidiary of Mattel, Inc. outside of the United States and Canada. 

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