Friends With Words With Friends

Ah, Words with Friends: the addictive touchscreen bastardization of Scrabble that is now so popular that even the most (only?) talented member of the Baldwin family would rather get kicked off a plane than surrender his chance at instant triple-word-score gratification. It is not so much a test of what words you know—even the hard-copy version of Scrabble requires a working knowledge of words on the official Scrabble list—but how well you can make letters fit.

It’s annoying for those of us who pride ourselves on the words we already understand. The way the game is designed allows for what I’ll call “soft cheating.” It’s not quite the same as consulting one of the many, uh, helpful sites that can tell you the highest-point word possible in any situation. But the built-in trial-and-error function—there’s no penalty for placing a non-word other than being made to try again—allows you to play your letters until you hit on an acceptable word, which is an all likelihood a word you’ve never seen before (or you would have guessed it in the first place, no?).

But ultimately, I’ve come to embrace “Words with Friends,” not as a test of vocabulary, but as an opportunity to expand it. If not for WWF,* I would likely still not know words like “toxemia” (the presence of toxins in the blood), “quale” (the quality of a thing), or for that matter “ai” (a three-toed sloth).

*Not to be confused with the WWF,** without which I would likely not know words like “sleeper hold” or “Hulkamania.”

**Not to be confused with the WWF, without which I would likely not know words like “endangered species” and “giant panda.” Okay, I probably would.

When I was a sophomore in high school, a couple of my friends and I would get together to play H-O-R-S-E—you know, the variation of basketball where if you fail to match another’s shot, you get tagged with a letter; “earn” all five letters and you’re out. Only, instead of using “horse,” we would play with words from that week’s AP English vocabulary list. We tried to tell ourselves that the fact that we were, technically, playing basketball made the whole exercise a little less dorky. It did not. And as you might imagine, games like I-N-D-E-F-A-T-I-G-A-B-L-E or S-Y-N-E-C-D-O-C-H-E took a bit longer.

It was, I suppose, an early version of “Words with Friends,” insofar as it involved words. And friends. And it was actually a way to remember certain words and what they mean.

Now, some friends that I’ve played with in Words with Friends maintain a policy that if anyone puts down a word that seems beyond the bounds of an intelligent but relatively normal person of our generation, he or she must define it (over the chat function). So at least if someone is cheating, everybody learns something. Really? Come on. That is just way too dorky.

I love it.