Can you play the word FART in Scrabble? The short answer calls on the old adage: your house, your rules. The long answer, investigating the question of exactly which words are valid, is much more interesting. Like language itself, Scrabble’s list of playable words is living and evolving, even branching into new subspecies if you extend that metaphor. Attempts to make hard rules about what’s allowed reveal myriad edge cases, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Of course, the real question isn’t about FART at all, but more offensive words. Ultimately, the history of the Scrabble dictionary and its most controversial entries is both twisty and still unfolding.
The Early Days of Scrabble
Scrabble arose in the wake of the crossword puzzle craze of the 1920s. If you were ever unsure that history repeats itself, here’s an example. There were people wringing their hands about crossword puzzles being the downfall of society 100 years ago. You can read about that quaint time in the delightful crossword history Thinking Inside the Box. Scrabble itself took off in the 1950s, and its relationship to crosswords is apparent not just in the conceit of intersecting words but in the game board itself, a 15×15 grid. That’s the same size as the standard daily crossword puzzles seen in The New York Times or USA Today.
The board game doesn’t include a dictionary in the box. Before starting, players are supposed to agree upon the dictionary to reference when challenging words. In the days before home computers, whatever print dictionary people had in their homes sufficed. The dictionary is there to adjudicate challenges. When a person plays a word, their opponent may believe it’s been misspelled, that it’s too slangy or too obscure, or that it isn’t a real word at all (see KWYJIBO). Or what if a player added an S to a word that can’t be pluralized that way? Speaking of plurals, my fellow word nerds might appreciate that the Scrabble officially allows OCTOPI, OCTOPUSES, and OCTOPODES.
A dictionary will settle all these problems and more. Note that the dictionary need not be consulted on every play. One of the joys of the game is pulling the wool over your opponent’s eyes and playing what’s called a phony. Naturally, being caught playing a phony, even unintentionally, can be disastrous, and I recommend The New Yorker video of players recalling memorable plays for an example of that.
So, could you play FART when Scrabble first came about? Any print dictionary from the 20th century ought to have the word FART; it’s one of these words that’s been around for many centuries. So yes.
Things Get Competitive
Scrabble is a special board game in that it offers limitless opportunity to improve one’s game. Like chess players who study and learn small subsections of the game (the titular Queen’s Gambit, for example), Scrabble players can study the useful quirks of the English language. The lists of two letter words (like AA, a type of lava rock) and words that contain a Q without a U (like the QWERTY keyboard) are the first things to learn if you’re getting serious about Scrabble.
Because Scrabble can be played at such a high level, competitions naturally arose. And with competition comes a need for standardization. Everyone might agree that basketball shots taken from farther away should be worth more points. But until you draw that line, everyone’s going to argue. Turns out, even when you do decide on a standard, people will still argue. In fact, if there’s one takeaway from this whole article, it’s “people will still argue.”
This happened with Scrabble in 1978. The National Scrabble Association had decided on the Funk & Wagnalls Collegiate Dictionary as the standard for play, but it proved inadequate. It lacked some common words in the lexicon. It also included non-English words that some players felt shouldn’t be played, such as OUI, the French word for “yes.” The Association formed a committee that teamed up with Merriam-Webster to create the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, henceforth referred to as the OSPD.
So who gets to decide what words are in or out? Merriam-Webster’s method involved comparing five different publishers’ collegiate dictionaries by hand. If a word was represented in all five, it went into the Scrabble dictionary. This method, for one, would catch any fictitious entries dictionaries used as copyright traps (the dictionary version of Paper Towns). It would also weed out the words so obscure that their dictionary presence had dwindled. Moreover, it would include the slang and neologisms that had legitimately caught on. FLASHMOB, for example, is not in the current OSPD. Maybe FLASHMOB is a flashmob of a word, briefly there and gone again.
The first edition of any book is going to have mistakes; that’s human endeavor for you. Somehow they missed the word GRANOLA. The second edition followed, correcting some of these oversights. But could you play FART with those editions? Sure thing.
The Third Edition
Merriam-Webster broke with the National Scrabble Association in publishing the third edition of the OSPD. As the results of a grassroots campaign, the Anti-Defamation League had contacted the chairman of Hasbro, Scrabble’s parent company, about offensive words in the OSPD, namely the presence of the word JEW. Capitalized words are not valid in Scrabble; therefore the only way the word was playable was to acknowledge its lowercase context as a verb. That usage is undoubtedly hateful and was indeed how the dictionary defined the word.
As a result, the third edition of the OSPD, published in 1995, took a very broad approach to what might be considered offensive. Racial slurs were removed, yes, but also words like BOOBIE, a word that could offend only the most delicate of sensibilities. And yes, goodbye FART. If you’re curious about the expurgated words, you can have a look at what’s colloquially referred to as the “Poo List.” Obvious warnings for offensive language apply.
A Slur Sidebar
Not all racial slurs were removed, however, in the publication of the third edition of the OSPD. Demonstrating just how difficult it is to wrangle language, some words that have a usage as a slur but another benign usage remain valid to this day. For example, a slur that used to be the name of Washington, D.C.’s football team is also a variety of peanut.
That kind of usage, by the way, is how slurs still end up in crossword puzzles. A key difference between Scrabble and crossword puzzles is that crosswords have no standardized list of words. A person constructs their puzzle and submits it to an editor. That editor uses their own discretion to decide whether the given entries are acceptable. Additionally, crosswords welcome plenty of entries Scrabble never would, including phrases, capitalized words, abbreviations, prefixes, and suffixes.
Crossword editors frequently abide by something colloquially known as the “Sunday morning breakfast test.” This means puzzles rarely contain entries that would gross you out or bum you out. Does it bum solvers out to enter a word that is a slur but was clued with its innocent meaning? It did in January of 2019, when editor Will Shortz issued an apology for offending solvers with a racial slur clued with baseball terminology.
With the OSPD trying to institute something like a breakfast test for Scrabble, many competitive players were unhappy. Not only were they not consulted in the decision, but players were loath to limit their options by catering to someone else’s sensibilities. And it’s a pain to remember all the words that were previously playable but no longer are.
The Great Schism
The OSPD has marched on, continuing to update the dictionary with a fourth (2005), fifth (2014), and sixth edition (2018). The focus seems to be on adding words, with thousands of new entries over the years (Merriam-Webster did not respond to my requests about whether any words were removed from these subsequent editions). ZA, short for pizza, regrettably an addition to my own lexicon in my pandemic-induced dinner indecision, was added in 2005. MIXTAPE showed up in 2014, EMOJI in 2018.
Meanwhile, competitive Scrabble shunned the bowdlerized OSPD. The compromise the National Scrabble Association reached was to publish their own word list, the Official Tournament and Club Word List, that contained all entries from the second edition of the OSPD, including the offensive ones, but without any definitions. It’s sold only to members of the association. That word list continues to be updated, and is currently known as the North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) Word List.
That NASPA word list is valid for tournament play only in Canada, the United States, and Thailand. Fun fact: many of the world’s best Scrabble players are Thai. The rest of the world uses a list currently called Collins Scrabble Words. The Association of British Scrabble Players had been consulting different dictionaries as competitive Scrabble became popular there and a definitive word list became necessary. As a result, at the first World Scrabble Championship in 1991, an entry could appear in either of the two sources to be considered playable. Now, only the Collins Scrabble Words are playable at that championship.
How do players usually competing with the NASPA list adapt to the Collins list should they make it to the World Championships? For one, they can use some additional two-letter words. For another, they can now bingo, the Scrabble term for using all seven tiles in your rack on a single play, with ROASTIE, a British slang term for a roasted potato.
The Open Source Word List
Hasbro has given Merriam-Webster license to maintain the OSPD. The NASPA word list is proprietary to the players association, which is also beholden to Hasbro. That made me wonder what word lists other games, like Words With Friends, were pulling from. This popular mobile Scrabble copycat has no association with Hasbro; you’ll need the sanctioned app Scrabble GO for that.
The answer to where Words With Friends sources their words both delighted and saddened me. Everyone loves the story of someone going rogue, right? That happened in the Scrabble world as well, following the controversial release of the third edition of the OSPD. Some enterprising Scrabbleheads set forth to make something great: comprehensive, authoritative, open-source. The result, first released in 1997, is called ENABLE, short for Enhanced North American Benchmark LExicon. It received a Y2K update (didn’t everything?) to expand its offerings to 173,528 words.
That might seem like a lot of words. For comparison, currently there are 279,496 words in the Collins Word List, over 187,000 words in the NASPA list, and “more than 100,000” in the OSPD. Among the differences from these lists, ENABLE isn’t meant to be Scrabble-specific. Therefore it didn’t constrain word lengths to fit on the standard Scrabble board. And you better believe it had all the offensive language.
Because it’s free, ENABLE underpins a variety of computer and mobile word games, including Words With Friends. While WWF links to ENABLE from their rulebook, they say they’ve “added a few of our own words to [the] game such as ZEN and TEXTING, and more words may be added in the future.” Whether they’ve kept up with language with the same rigor that Merriam-Webster or NASPA has is questionable. Perhaps you were an early adopter of Words With Friends who found yourself frustrated by the game’s fuddy-duddy word list. If so, it’s because they were working from a list created 20 years ago and they’re not in the dictionary business. In 2017, however, they added about 50,000 words to their dictionary, largely based on player suggestions. New words include QUESO, TURNT, and, I’m mad I’m even typing this, COVFEFE.
I haven’t located anyone currently working to update ENABLE as an open-source document. Alas, another utopian effort gone by the wayside. In fact, the README file accompanying the original list, accessible via the Wayback Machine, gives some real Ozymandias vibes. To wit: “It is primarily the result of a single unifying vision, that of Alan Beale, who dedicated countless hours to research. ENABLE therefore represents not merely a superior alternative to the OSPD/TWL, it threatens to supplant and replace it, to squeeze the very life out of it in a process of Darwinian selection.” Without anyone to shepherd the list through the language changes of this millennium, word nerds are left with games that add or subtract words from proprietary lists in a higgledy-piggledy way. Meanwhile, the ENABLE list stands there inert, two vast and trunkless legs of stone.
The Bee in my Bonnet
A side note about higgledy-piggledy word lists: I am frustrated every single day by words The New York Times Spelling Bee puzzle does not accept. I’m no herpetologist, but I know an ANOLE is a very common lizard! Still I continue to play the game, clown that I am. A technical specialist at the Times told me their word list was an “internal lexicon” that is occasionally amended. I gained no information about its origins. Guess I’ll just die mad.
So who is the OSPD for?
If the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary is not the word list for any competitive play, exactly who is it “official” for? Well, it’s just fine for use in schools or clubs that aren’t concerned with sanctioned competition. And it’s great for use at home; it’s simple to know a word is definitively playable, when other print dictionaries include capitalized words and abbreviations, etc. Moreover, the OSPD is searchable from the web. Let’s be real, we’re more likely to pull out our phones to settle a dispute than open a book these days. Just know that if you play FART and your opponent challenges, you will lose your turn if you consult the online OSPD!
A Change is Gonna Come
If the OSPD urges polite Scrabble games, the word lists compiled by players associations historically took a no holds barred approach. One can imagine players agreeing to take a dispassionate attitude toward using the vilest language English has to offer. It’s purely strategic, more mathematical than linguistic. The players have all perhaps mutually agreed that nothing is personal. Knowing and using offensive language in the game is not a reflection of character. One wrinkle comes, however, when people who didn’t enter into any such agreement end up seeing the games. Namely, when television stations air tournaments, prompting controversy for showing words you can’t say on television. Similarly, photographs of tournament game boards appearing in newspapers can require apologies after the fact.
The other wrinkle has come in the wake of the larger reckoning with ugly history that came to a head in 2020. While people around the U.S. have been deciding what to do about confederate flags, statues honoring perpetrators of genocide, etc., Hasbro brought down the hammer on the North American Scrabble Players Association. Internal polling indicated the majority of NASPA members wanted either no change to the word list or the removal of only the N-word. Nevertheless, in July 2020, Hasbro announced slurs are no longer acceptable in Scrabble play. The 2020 edition of the NASPA word list reflects this, with 259 words removed. Because I know you’re desperate to know: FART is still A-OK. A-OK itself is not valid; hyphenated words are a no-go.
The Saga Continues
For more extensive coverage, Stefan Fatsis, who wrote Word Freak, the definitive nonfiction work about Scrabble, also covers Scrabble news for Slate. As Scrabble word lists are forever fungible, debate is ongoing. It crops up in media coverage, including a recently aired segment on The Daily Show. In the end, there’s much to consider: what happens in tournaments overseen by NASPA, what happens in televised tournaments, and what happens in international Scrabble. In addition to distinct word lists, outside of North America, Mattel Inc. oversees Scrabble rather than Hasbro. There has to date been little movement to remove offensive language in that competitive sphere.
For those who ruffle at the thought of limiting language usage to cater to a sensitive crowd, the question is this: why are slurs necessary to the game? If the argument is about limiting the possibilities of play, Scrabble already has one enormous and quite arbitrary limitation. Capitalized words make up a huge swath of our everyday lexicon, including names of people, places, brands, and more. What’s wrong with ruling out a much smaller category? Hasbro’s new guidelines, no capitalized words and no slurs, seem simple enough, right?
Of course it’s never simple. Poking around in the OSPD for words on the edge of that capitalization rule demonstrates this. Brand names frequently become genericized, when they take on the meaning of a whole category of product. For example, XEROX is playable in Scrabble, meaning photocopy, despite being a specific brand. Likewise, HOOVER, GOOGLE, THERMOS, and ASPIRIN. Words you might think have been sufficiently genericized, like DUMPSTER, FRISBEE, LAUNDROMAT, or KLEENEX, are not valid Scrabble words. What else can you even call a dumpster? Still, asking for perfect consistency when it comes to anything about language usage is a fool’s errand.
Likewise, grappling with offensive language creates cascading questions. I consulted author Roxane Gay, who wrote about her experience in competitive Scrabble in Bad Feminist. Presenting some of these very questions, she said, “The reality is that offensive words exist. We cannot sanitize them out of our culture as much as we would like to. That said, it adds nothing at all to the game of Scrabble to keep terrible words in play. The challenge is, how far do we go into the realm of offensive? Racial slurs should absolutely have no place in the game, but do we also remove curse words from the game?”
In addition to the questions proposed by Gay, others require consideration. If people can agree racial slurs are out, what about gender and sexuality-based slurs, among others? And what to do with the slurs that have a second benign meaning, which are currently acceptable? Finally, there’s the question of authority. Who should be making these decisions, and who should they be listening to? Right now, for example, it’s Hasbro holding the reins and not the players themselves.
Can the tiles spell NUANCE?
Any game with broad appeal has to be adaptable to different contexts. Back to a basketball analogy. Whether it’s a pickup game on a public court, a middle school gym class, a Paralympic wheelchair basketball game, or the Final Four, the game isn’t going to look the same. And that’s a good thing: basketball is both a great game and an adaptable one. The same is true of Scrabble. The rules for international championships don’t have to apply to a youth tournament at a community center or family game night. Ultimately, no one is saying you can’t play FART when you play Scrabble at home.
A final thing to consider, for those who feel like editing words from a Scrabble word list is the slippery slope to banning the works of James Baldwin or Mark Twain. There are those whose job it is to preserve and document language history and usage. That is a separate endeavor from making the word list to accompany a board game. If a Scrabble player loses a game because staring at a hateful word their opponent played throws them off, maybe taking that word out is an act of justice. Maybe it makes the game a little more welcoming. A little more fun. It is, after all, a game.
The Last Tile in the Bag
I know someone who introduces the rules of any game the same way. “The object of the game is to have fun. One way to have fun is to win the game. To win the game…” Although this began as a way to explain game rules to children, it’s become a good reminder for everyone. It’s always good to acknowledge that games can and should retain a sense of fun even at elite levels.
Ultimately, my correspondence with Roxane Gay included hope for a path forward that could make the highest levels of Scrabble more inclusive: “These are questions the Scrabble community will need to grapple with in good faith. We all love words and I think there’s a way to keep offensive words out of play without diluting the beauty of the game.”