The Tournament Scrabble Dictionary Contains More Than A Hundred Slurs

One woman first raised the issue of the Scrabble dictionary containing offensive words in the 1990s

"Wing," "coin" and "toil" are all words you can play in any Scrabble game. "Biten," however, is not legal. Wikimedia Commons

If you play Scrabble casually, you use the OSPD3.

Among the kinds of Scrabble players who compete in tournaments, that’s how to refer to the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary, Third Edition. Some of those players would say the dictionary is missing something: 167 words you can’t play in a non-tournament Scrabble game. The list includes racial epithets, curse words and other words deemed too offensive for gameplay. It’s also the source of a huge controversy among the players of the game that Alfred Mosher Butts, born on this day in 1899, invented.

The genesis of the Scrabble Dictionary War (as it may be deemed by future historians) was this: in 1993, the original Official Scrabble Dictionary was a player’s tool of choice. That dictionary, which was based on the Merriam-Webster dictionary, contained a number of words that many people would deem offensive in some or all usages. For Judith Grad, a Virginian art gallery owner, the word that started it all was “JEW,” used not as a recognized term for a people, but as a slur defined as “to bargain with–an offensive term.”

When Grad heard from two elderly Jewish friends that this racial epithet could be played on Scrabble boards, writes journalist Stefan Fatsis in his history of Scrabble, “she was horrified.”

Further research revealed that the Scrabble dictionary contained a number of other racist and derogatory words. Fatsis writes:

“I was livid,” Grad told a local newspaper. “It’s a game. Those words have no business in a dictionary used to support a game.” She started writing letters, first to Merriam-Webster and Hasbro’s game division, Milton Bradley. She didn’t like the responses.

“It is certainly not the intent of the dictionary to perpetuate racial or ethnic slurs or to make such usages respectable,” Merriam-Webster’s editor in chief, Frederick C. Mish, wrote. “However, such slurs are part of the language and reputable dictionaries record them.”

“As a dictionary, it is a reflection of words currently used in our language, Milton Bradley President Dave Wilson told her. “It is important to note that Milton Bradley Co. does not condone the use of these words, nor do we advocate the use of offensive terms. If it were up to us, none of these words—nor the sentiments behind them—would exist at all.

The difference between a regular dictionary and the Scrabble Dictionary, as Grad articulated it, was that the Scrabble Dictionary existed for the sole purpose of providing an official resource for a recreational pastime—not as an exhaustive record of the English language. She pursued her quest, contacting advocacy organizations and ultimately catalyzing a letter-writing campaign that was picked up by the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith. The ADL wrote to the chairman of Hasbro, Alan Hassenfeld, accusing Hasbro of “literally playing games with hate,” Fatsis writes. “Without consulting Merriam-Webster or the National Scrabble Association, Hassenfeld acceded to the ADL’s demand,” he writes, and Hasbro announced that between 50 and 100 “offensive” words were leaving the OSPD.

Cue the controversy. The Scrabble community freaked out, arguing that words played on a Scrabble board are meaningless beyond their letter value in the context of the game, and accusing Hasbro of censorship.

The list of words to be removed reached as high as 206, Fatsis writes. An uneasy compromise was eventually reached. The third edition of the Scrabble Dictionary—the OSPD3 in player lingo—does not contain the words, but a separate word list of the removed words is printed for tournament play. So the situation has rested ever since.

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