"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Fine Art of Making Up Scrabble Words

In the cut-throat world of Scrabble competition, having an edge on the competition can be the difference between spelling success and spelling failure. This edge can be gained one of two ways (not both):

1. By acquiring a large vocabulary.

2. By making up words and their definitions so adroitly that the other players accept them without protest.

Now I prefer the second method. The reasons are these: Acquiring a large vocabulary can take years of study; a typical Scrabble game does not. Also, the letters available may simply not fit the pattern of any known word. This is where the advantages of the second method may be seen: whatever letters are available can be used to create the words ex nihilo. (if you don't know what ex nihilo means just make up a definition that makes sense with the rest of the sentence, that's what I do when I see Latin phrases.) The few tips that follow on how to validate newly minted words can help you when your word is challenged by another player.

First, when challenged it is often good to ask the challenging player, with just a hint of shocked surprise in one's voice, if they have really never heard the word before. This will put them on the defensive and leave them wondering how they could have missed learning this word in 5th grade vocabulary class. Then it is best to use the word in a sentence since using a word in a sentence immediately lends credibility to it. Sometimes this example is enough to quiet dissent since many people don't like to show their ignorance about something so seemingly self-evident.

Take, for example, one of my favorite Scrabble words: pinaforte (pronounced: pin-a-for-TAY). “You've never heard of a person's pinaforte bursting amid a multi-colored cloud of feathers?” If they continue to assert that they haven't, you should begin patiently explaining that a pinaforte is a large purse or handbag used by nobility during the Renaissance as a symbol of status. They were made by sewing together the feathers of brightly-colored birds, but sometimes the threads would break and the feathers separate from one another with an effect somewhat similar to a pillow bursting during a pillow-fight. Of course, you can make the description as elaborate as time and your audience allows by adding details of how the purses were lined with burlap so the feather ends wouldn't poke through or how the popularity of these bags contributed to feather mites infesting humans and the subsequent practice of both men and women of shaving their legs in an effort to get rid of the little bugs. This explains all those paintings of an effeminate king Louis with shaved legs. All of these little details make the word sound more authentic and usually your work is done.

If, however, your fellow players still resist the idea, and demand to see it in the dictionary you should be quick to lay hold of the dictionary before them. This will give you the chance of, first, complaining that the dictionary is a highly abridged American version that could hardly be expected to contain obsolete words of European origin; and second, you can begin looking up the word's “roots.” Looking up a word's “roots” can be one of the most difficult parts of the whole affair and could make or break it. The worst problem to be encountered is if your word has no likely “roots” in the dictionary and you must simply claim that, like the word “Google,” it just came into being around the year __A.D. when it was first recorded in the anonymous Medieval “Codex Deceivius.”

Luckily, with a word like “pinaforte” there are two easily imagined “roots:” “pina” and “forte.” “Pina” conjures up images of pineapples which are colorful and so could easily be compared to colorful South American bird feathers like those used to decorate the pinaforte bags. However, since South America wasn't discovered till after the Renaissance setting of the earlier definition you gave, it is best to dig a little deeper for a more convincing “root.” Quickly scanning the dictionary you notice that a “pinnacle” is part of a fortress or battlement. People put valuable things in a fortress; people also put valuable things in a purse. But better yet, you notice that the Latin root “pinna” actually means a feather. The word is bomb-proof now. All that is required is to show how “forte” (meaning strong or powerful) can apply to either the strong influence a person with a big purse can have or the metaphorical sense in which having a lot of money makes one feel safer as if one were protected by a “strong battlement,” the literal meaning of the two roots “pinna” and “forte.”

Of course, having made these “discoveries” you could go on ad nauseam (yep, means just what it sounds like) about the word's earlier meanings in ancient architecture dealing with castle fortifications, etc. But the case is made sufficiently for the other players to accept the word “pinaforte” as legitimate and return to the game. Any newly minted word can be handled in this way and such a lengthy argument as above may not always be necessary. Another favorite word of mine, “streth,” may need no more than to be used in a sentence to validate it. To “streth oneself with worry” is literally to “wear oneself ragged” with worry. Or again, to “streth one's mouth” is literally to wear it dry and hoarse with an overabundance of talk.

Well, I've almost strethed my fingertips to the bone from all this typing, so I think I'll leave the rest up to you. Next time you pack up your pinaforte bag for the trip over to a Scrabble tournament, be sure to carry with you these important tips about getting that winning edge. Let your next Scrabble game spell success.

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