The new Scrabble dictionary could freak out traditionalists

Pwn (8 points, to dominate an opponent). Thanx (15 points, thanks). Bezzy (18 points, several meanings, not all of which are printable).

Do these words sound “ridic” (8 points, ridiculous)? Collins, which publishes the official dictionary for the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association, doesn’t think so. All four terms, along with about 6,500 others, are included in its updated list of Official Scrabble Words released Thursday.

Some of the additions are new because the concepts they describe are fairly new themselves, like “Facetime” (15 points, to speak with someone over video chat using the Facetime application on a phone).

Others, like “bezzy” and “thanx,” are straight up slang. You probably wouldn’t find them in a high school English essay, let alone the Oxford English Dictionary. But the Collins list includes them anyway, because people use them. And that’s actually kind of radical.

By bestowing official Scrabble legitimacy on “shizzle” and “tweep,” Collins waded into language’s longest running debate: Should language rules dictate how we speak or reflect it?

On the one side are the prescriptivists, who believe that grammar books and dictionaries determine the “right” way to speak, and everyone should follow suit. A word that’s not in the dictionary isn’t missing – it just shouldn’t be used. Prescriptivists would shudder at “shizzle” (28 points, sure) and turn up their noses at “tweep” (10 points, someone who follows you on Twitter).

Opposing them are people who believe that language rules should be descriptive, that they ought to reflect the way people speak and write. This camp argues that prescriptive language rules stigmatize those who speak differently, deciding who’s in and who’s out.

Helen Newstead, head of language content at Collins, explained to the BBC that their word list is based on printed evidence of word use. If you can find it written in enough places, they'll include it. So “grr” (4 points, expressing anger or annoyance), which people type all the time, is in. “Meese” (7 points, plural of “moose”), which I just made up, is not.

“People use slang in social media posts, tweets, blogs, comments, text messages – you name it – so there’s a host of evidence for informal varieties of English that simply didn’t exist before,” Newstead said.

Not only is that argument essentially descriptivist, it also lends legitimacy to the sources of the new Scrabble words: Twitter, text messages, etc. It says that communicating through technology isn’t some degraded, lesser form of interaction and that the Internet is as important a reservoir of language as handwritten letters.

Of course, the new additions to the Collins dictionary aren’t all acronyms and text slang. There are also technical terms like “geocache” (16 points, to search for hidden containers using GPS as a recreational activity) and words from other cultures like “quinzhee” (29 points, a shelter made from a hollowed-out mound of snow). In terms of linguistic clout, the Collins dictionary is no Oxford English Dictionary (and for the record, some of the new Scrabble terms are already in the OED, including “quinzhee” and “LOLZ”). But adding them to the list of recognized words means that people who geocache or camp in a quinzhee have been allowed “in.” It’s a symbolic opening of the cultural gates.