Confessions of a solitary Scrabbler

Confession: I sometimes play Scrabble with myself. Okay, quite often. There, I said it. When she and I (our preferred pronouns) play, our goal is not that one of us defeat the other. No, we win together, by finishing all our letters without cheating. Cheating would be, for instance, one of us getting an extra turn at the end. A nice, clean finish, using all the letters, equal turns for each, leaves us feeling fulfilled and satisfied (we are simple souls).

We are allowed to help each other. We worry especially about the Q, that oddball letter that can never stand alone and must always have a U after it. We experience mild anxiety as we wait for it to show itself. There is only one Q in a Scrabble game, and there are four U's. When one of us gets a U, we try to make a word using U, and set up a space where the Q can be used when one of us gets it. That spot remains sacrosanct until the Q has been disposed of.

This schizophrenic Scrabble game has made both of us very aware of the qualities, frequency and uses of different letters of the alphabet. For instance, we don’t want to get stuck with the Q at the end of the game, unless there is a U waiting. We don’t want to get stuck with the one J either. It is almost impossible to use the J at the end of the game. V's are nasty in a final turn as well. And strangely, though there are twelve E's in a Scrabble game (more than any other letter), and they are incredibly useful, they are very hard to use as a last letter. I's and A's are fine at the end – stick them in front of a T or an N – but E's, no.

Anyway, these Scrabble games have got us thinking about the letters of the alphabet, especially their frequencies.

When Samuel Morse was developing his famous code, he did a survey of letters in sets of printers' type, and found that J, X and Z were the least frequent letters. More recent analysis of the Concise Oxford Dictionary finds that J, Q and Z are the least frequent. Other methods of analysis have been used, such as the cryptological study of codes. The four winners (or losers?) are always J, X, Q and Z. Not coincidentally, these are the highest value letters in Scrabble (for those who score their words – she and I do not), and there is only one of each. British and Canadian spellers use more U's (colour) than do Americans (color); Americans are more likely to use a Z at the end of a word (analyze) than the British, who tend toward S in such words (analyse). So the frequencies of letters can vary according to local spellings.

According to analysis of the Oxford Concise Dictionary, not surprisingly, E is the most common letter in English – thus the 12 E's in a Scrabble game. The letter A comes next (there are nine in a Scrabble game), and then R. Scrabble departs from this analysis after the letter A, providing nine I's before its six R's.

The word "alphabet" comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The twenty-six letters of the modern English alphabet are based on Latin script. Until about 1835 there were actually twenty-seven letters, with the ampersand (&) being included as the final letter. Before Latin, we can trace our alphabet's origins to the Semitic alphabet of ancient Phoenicia, dating at least to 1600 BCE. This Semitic alphabet is thought by linguistic historians to be the ancestor of virtually all later alphabets. Before alphabets there were pictograms, which developed into cuneiform in ancient Sumeria (4,000 BCE). Cuneiform means "wedge-shaped;" cuneiform letters are triangular shapes representing objects, events, people and sounds. Sumerians etched these into soft rock. (Whether ancient Sumerians were etching crossword-like cuneiforms into soft rock in their spare time is unknown.)

All of this leads us back to Scrabble. Scrabble was invented in 1938 by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts, who wanted to create a crossword-like board just for himself. (Hah! It started out as a solitary game.) Apparently Butts studied the front page of the New York Times in order to decide on letter distribution, and his analysis holds up very well today. The distribution of letters in a Scrabble game is very similar to modern analyses of letter frequencies in dictionaries. Butts patented his game in 1948, calling it Criss Cross Words. After a slow start, the game grew in popularity. Today there are local and international Scrabble tournaments, the frequently updated Official Scrabble Dictionary and digital versions of the game. Butts would be proud.

Meanwhile, she and I play our innocent game (much more fun than Solitaire, should you be feeling playful when alone), helping and encouraging each other and staving off mental ossification. Our slightly split personality is a small price to pay for this intellectual pleasure. We recommend it, dear readers. At the very least, it will give you someone to talk to.

Till next time.

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