Changes always generate resistance and criticism. But nobody would have expected an update of the US Scrabble tournament list to trigger so much protest. This new list, the TWL 2014, should have appeared in December 2014. But things didn’t work as they should, and members of the Scrabble scene are upset about words that were added as well as words that were not added. And they talk about the “freedom” of word lists. What exactly happened? I have tried to understand the problem and talked about it with Ross Brown of the Ottawa SCRABBLE Club.
TWL 2014: The Facts
The TWL 2014 is the new Scrabble Tournament Word List to be used in the USA and Canada and is only available to members of the NASPA (The North American Scrabble Players Association). The list is actually called the Official Tournament and Club Word List 2014 (OTCWL2014). The TWL remake is based on the Oxford College Dictionary (2nd edition) and Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edition). Three parties worked on it: The North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA), the book publisher Merriam-Webster, and the board game company Hasbro. The NASPA formed a Dictionary Committee that searched for new words for the TWL 2014. One of the aims of the NASPA was to publish the first TWL with 15-letter words. It was promised that no words would be deleted from the old list. But something went wrong…
- For more details, check our previous article about the TWL 2014.
The TWL 2014: Missing Words and Missing Freedom
The TWL 2014 had not been officially published as the news spread that the list is not what it was promised to be. Like in every new publication, there were errors in the list. But this time the errors were far more numerous:
- For example, some words of the former list were missing.
- Scrabble players detected discrepancies between the TWL and the new OSPD (actually, the TWL contains all the words that are listed in the OSPD, but this was not true for the TWL 2014. For more information about OSPD and TWL, read our article about the various word lists).
- Some players criticize that words like “vlog” and “bromance” were added.
- None of the 15-letter words the NASPA Dictionary Committee handed in were added to the list. Of course, there are 15-letter words in the TWL 2014, but these words were chosen by Merriam-Webster and not by the representatives of the Scrabble community.
- Another point is that the new list is no longer free to share, for example on the internet. There are free Scrabble training programs on the internet. Until now, the creators of those programs were free to use the TWL word list. Now they are having licensing problems. The most popular program is Zyzzyva. To avoid getting into trouble with Hasbro, which owns the word list, Zyzzyva was sold to NASPA.
All errors in the TWL 2014 were found and corrected. Nevertheless, this process resulted in some bad PR about the new tournament list. To find out what this means for the Scrabble community, I was glad to get an interview with Ross Brown of the Ottawa SCRABBLE Club. He is one of the representatives on the Scrabble community who worked on the Dictionary Committee and he is currently working on the new version of Zyzzyva.
An Interview with Ross Brown on the TWL 2014
Ross, can you tell me something about your work on the Dictionary Committee? How did you decide whether a word fits to the list or not?
First, to clarify, I am (like thousands of others) a member of NASPA, but I am not an officer and not entitled to speak on its behalf. I am one of less than ten NASPA members who make up the Dictionary Committee. We inspected the Oxford Collegiate Dictionary (Second Edition) and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Second Edition) for words that could be added to the OTCWL2014 word list. The findings were then double-checked before compiling them and sending them to Merriam-Webster for their consideration. The Merriam-Webster experts vetted the suggested additions and added more words from newer editions of their own dictionaries before deciding on the new list to publish. The criteria for inclusion have nothing to do with popularity or commonness. If a word appears as a blackletter entry and fits the rules of the game (no hyphenation, no words written in upper case, etc.), then it qualifies for inclusion. Unfortunately, the schedule imposed by the publisher made it impossible for them to process our “long word” submissions, so the only new 10- to 15-letter root words in TWL2014 are ones that Merriam-Webster found themselves. This came as a surprise to the Dictionary Committee, because TWL2014 was intended to be the first printed word list to include all 2- to 15-letter words in a single package.
“Most players would just like to get on with learning the new words.” (Ross Brown on the reactions of the US Scrabble community to the problems with the TWL 2014)
What have you experienced in the Scrabble community since news about the new list spread?
Most players are indifferent to the problems and would just like to get on with learning the new words. Among the critics there is some confusion about the mistakes in TWL2014 and those in the public OSPD5 word list, which are more numerous. The NASPA Dictionary Committee published a list of corrections to TWL2014 in October. The tournament and club word list is thus final, though not yet in use at tournaments. That will occur two months after the public release of the revised Zyzzyva software.
Another issue is that there is a copyright on the TWL 2014. This doesn’t allow the creators of Scrabble training tools to freely use the list. What is your opinion on this?
The copyright status of TWL2014 and OSPD5 is the same as for the previous versions, but the holders have made it known that they plan to enforce their rights where they did not in the past. Since NASPA’s particular “official” status exists only because of licensing agreements with those holders, there is no question that NASPA will comply with the new requirements. None of us wanted these lists to be restricted, and NASPA spent months trying to loosen the terms, but this is where we have ended up. Some even see in this a conspiracy to force more people into buying NASPA memberships, though it’s pretty clear to me that such a conspiracy, if it existed, would be a dumb idea. The loss of something once freely available seems to hurt people’s feelings more than I thought it would. The big problem I see now is that the authors of those tools, whether out of protest or for lack of time and money, seem to be waiting for the new word lists to be pirated rather than going through proper channels and applying for a license from the copyright holders.
“The loss of something once freely available seems to hurt people’s feelings more than I thought it would.” (Ross Brown on the copyright restrictions of the TWL 2014)
So if there has always been a copyright on the TWL, do you have any idea why is this happening right now?
Not really, other than to say that lawyers set the rules in most U.S. corporations. Plainly, NASPA had no part in plotting this move. It has been clear for some time that Hasbro has little interest in the club and tournament scene. In the space of 10 years, they have gone from being an active sponsor of national championships and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to run the National SCRABBLE Association – to where they have no presence on the competitive scene beyond a school program. They know that they have a compliant partner in NASPA, that our organization is powerless to dispute any restrictions they impose, and I don’t know if they even realize what this licensing requirement is doing to the competitive scene in North America.
Readers of word-grabber.com said that they prefer using the CSW list, which is used for tournaments in other English-speaking countries. Do you think it’s possible that because of the current problems with TWL2014, players will switch to using CSW?
Some critics feel that this is a good time to break with the Merriam-Webster word lists and move to a publicly available list such as ENABLE; others are using this “discontinuity” to push their preference for the international English word list “CSW12”, though I question whether the next version of that list won’t arrive with similar restrictions. A big change like that will seem like a good idea to those who value purity and freedom over their investment of time in word study (or who were already open to switching to Collins). I’d rather stay with a list that I know and respect for its intrinsic quality, and my guess is that most players will stay with the Merriam-Webster lists out of simple inertia.
But the CSW list even has more words than TWL 2014, so it should be more interesting to Scrabble players, shouldn’t it? Why do they stick to TWL?
This has more to do with acceptance than enthusiasm for “more words”. The North American list is short on current British, Australian, New Zealand, South African and Indian English terminology, which makes CSW a more attractive option internationally. Unfortunately, the CSW list is also a very loose collection in lexicographical terms, much more permissive than any abridged English dictionary would be. It has thousands of exceedingly rare alternate spellings and other coinages that have no more than a handful of citations in written English. I’m resistant to CSW until they put it through a good cleansing to remove these archaisms and “one-shot wonders”. American players tend to be resistant on the basis of national identity, familiarity, and the time that they have invested in learning the list to the point of exclusion.
Ross, thank you for this interview.