Makers of the popular board game SCRABBLE® have admitted 2,800 new words to the game, according to The Guardian. This addition marks the first occasion of new words in four years to be added to Scrabble. The change reflects our constantly evolving language.
The Guardian article points out that Scrabble already allows the use of 276,000 words; with the addition of 2,862 words, the acceptable dictionary of Scrabble words has grown by 1 percent. That percentage seems small, but some of the new playable words certainly originated in modern times, such as “genderqueer” and the gender-neutral pronoun “ze.” In reality, although we think of most alterations to the English language as insignificant within our lifetimes, English has changed radically in the last 600 years.
Adding Words to Scrabble – The Controversy of Inkhorn Terms
Starting in the mid-15th century, many new words emerged—words which we take for granted today. They’re commonly known as “inkhorn” words, or “words coined from Latin or Greek, and they were coined for ‘educated’ effect or for sonic power,” said Dr. Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. “They were called inkhorn terms because they seemed to come right out of the inkwell, or the inkhorn. In other words, they were a mark, not of speech, but of reading and writing.”
Dr. Lerer listed several inkhorn terms of the day, including anachronism, autograph, capsule, disregard, and erupt. While they were intended to sound lofty and educated, they soon became the butt of many jokes and parodies. Many writers and educators bristled at the changing and diluted English language as the 16th century rolled on. Chief among them was Alexander Gil, who taught Paradise Lost scribe John Milton. In fact, according to Dr. Lerer, Gil’s derision of The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer and the evolving English language was so scathing that it inspired some of Paradise Lost—specifically when Satan discovers his illegitimate children that he fathered with Sin, his own daughter.
“Gil’s vocabulary affects Milton’s mind, and what Milton is doing is, he’s looking back to Gil’s view of a fall from a linguistic Eden,” Dr. Lerer said. “The paradise that has been lost for Gil is a paradise of language. The paradise that Milton sees is a paradise of ethics, morality, and of experience.”
Changing Connotations of Common Words
Not only did inkhorn terms spring up throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, but, just as it happens today, the meanings of many words began to change. This process is called “polysemy.” “The word ‘cheap,’ for example, comes from Old English […]; it means ‘exchange’ or a place of commerce,” Dr. Lerer said. “But during the period of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, the word connoted this range of meanings and it could be used polysemously—that is, it could be used for pun, it could be used for word play. ‘Good cheap’ was a good value and things that were ‘valued cheaply’ were inexpensive.”
There are many other examples as well. “Words like ‘flagrant’ or ‘ardent,’ which originally mean ‘on fire’ or ‘burning,’ gradually come to take on emotional meanings—that is, someone who is ardently in love may be ‘burning in love’ but may not be on fire,” Dr. Lerer said. Polysemy allows for more ambiguous definitions and uses of words, thus contributing to the continuing change in our vocabulary.
This year’s new Scrabble words are sure to divide many linguists—the Alexander Gil purists of modern times on one side and the Chaucers on the other. However, as the saying goes, the only thing constant is change.
Dr. Seth Lerer contributed to this article. Dr. Lerer is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. He also taught at Princeton University, Cambridge University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Lerer earned his B.A. from Wesleyan University, a second B.A. from Oxford University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago.