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Word Freak

Falling in Love with Words

I received my first dictionary on my eleventh birthday. I think it was an American Heritage, though it might have been a Merriam-Webster’s. It had a royal blue cover and I loved it because it was a real dictionary, an adult dictionary, thick and official and tiny-typed. It had the added attraction, for an eleven-year-old, of color illustrations—flags, planets, rocks—and I examined those first. I wrote my name on the front page. I studied the list of colleges and universities in the back. I read the explanatory notes on capitalization and etymology and usage. And I used it until it fell apart.

I love reading dictionaries. Not the dictionary, as most people say, as if there were just one, divinely inspired, like the Bible, and passed down through the ages. There are dozens of different sorts of dictionaries, each with its own structure and purpose. They are the books that make up books. But they also contain stories of their own: they have beginnings, middles, and ends; they span history; they change over time. They’re thick, sturdy, and self-assured (and when they’re not, they are honest, noting competing theories of origin or pronunciation).

Until I began reporting and writing Word Freak, my book about the world of competitive Scrabble, I was a "look at that!" sort of dictionary reader. I’d look up one word, and I’d happen on another wonderful entry nearby. "Look at that!" I’d think with delight; then I’d happen on another wonderful entry. And so on.

Then I met people whose love of dictionaries far surpassed mine. Expert Scrabble players matter-of-factly describe falling asleep reading The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. One reclusive obsessive has scrutinized every page of well over a dozen dictionaries by hand. He showed me a compendium of pseudonyms, in which he’d written hundreds of his own entries. He also combed through the five dictionaries from which The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary is drawn, in order to root out errors and omissions in the OSPD. He found two thousand. As new editions of the source dictionaries were published, he scoured them too, and over a decade his list of new words for Scrabble grew to fifty-five hundred. His work was the exclusive source for a second edition of the Scrabble dictionary. He didn’t expect to be paid for his effort, and he wasn’t.

A few years ago, Scrabble replaced the OSPD as its official reference with a book that isn’t a dictionary at all. It’s just a list of 110,000 two- through nine-letter words plus their inflections. To me, that book is a work of abstract art. I love riffling the pages, stopping randomly, and letting my eyes run along the alphabetized columns. It’s a word list stripped of the baggage of meaning, and I like that.

Scrabble has given me this odd affection for an abstract word collection, and it has changed the way I read real dictionaries, too. I am devoted to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, because that’s the Scrabble source for base words longer than nine letters. But I’m most attracted to words seven or eight letters long. Those are the "bingos" in Scrabble, which use all seven tiles on a rack and hence earn 50 bonus points. When I scan the pages of Merriam-Webster’s, I pause at unfamiliar sevens and eights and dawdle over their spellings and meanings. I profound pleasure in the aesthetic beauty of the words, and wonder over the forces of history that brought them to this page. Also, I just love to look at them. I feel like that eleven-year-old boy again, flipping from one shiny illustration to the other and marveling at the words in between.

Some of the characters in Word Freak

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