Who invented Scrabble?

Alfred Butts was an architect, but in the 1930s he was unemployed as a result of the Great Depression.  He was also a word-game enthusiast, doing crosswords and tinkering with anagrams.  Hoping to make some money, he developed a game called Lexiko which involved players drawing seven tiles, then simply taking turns to discard tiles and draw new ones until they could make a seven-letter word - the first player to do so won.  There was no board, no points and no element of interlocking your word with what had already been played.   No games manufacturer was interested in producing this game, and Butts still had no success even when he introduced point values for the different letters.   However, he kept refining his invention, and eventually added the board, the premium squares and the crossword-style building up of words that we know from the game today.

By 1939, Butts still had no success with any manufacturer, but he met James Brunot, a civil servant with an entrepreneurial streak, who was immediately intrigued by the game and played around with the idea, refined it a bit more, but still without any commercial success.  By now it was the early 1940s and the world had more pressing matters to attend to.  Finally, in 1949, Brunot formed his own business, the Production & Marketing Company, and the game – after a few more name changes, now called Scrabble – was finally ready to go to the shops.

Unfortunately, even after 18 years or so of development, Scrabble was still no overnight success.  Things were looking grim for Alfred and James, and Scrabble might well have faded away there and then.  Then Jack Strauss went on holiday.  Strauss was a shopkeeper, and he discovered Scrabble while on a summer break with some friends.  He loved the game and, on his return to work, promptly placed an order and organized a major promotion for the game in the store.  This might not have mattered much if Jack Strauss had just been any shopkeeper.  In fact, he was the chairman of Macy’s, one of the largest department stores in New York.  With that kind of power to push it, Scrabble was well and truly on it way.  Sales in the low thousands were transformed into millions, and Brunot’s and Butts’ long struggle was over. 

Scrabble is now played by millions of people across the world, and it regularly tops the chart of best-selling games.  About 100 million sets have been sold worldwide since it all started in 1949!

Alfred Butts died in 1993, so he lived long enough to see the worldwide success the game had become - millions of sets, addicts by the tens of thousands, even Scrabble clubs and World Championships.   Could he have dreamt of what he was starting when he came up with his curious little game, back in those dark, depressed days of 1931?

If you love words as much as we Scrabblers do, you may like to read a recently-released book entitled “SPELL IT OUT: The Singular Story of English Spelling” by David Crystal (Profile Books £12.99).  Here’s what Daisy Goodwin of The Sunday Times, 19.8.12, has to say about it. 

THE PROBLEM WITH SPELLING; English is one of the most randomly, unsystematically spelt languages in the world.  This fascinating study unpicks how we got it all in such a twist. 

Have you ever wondered why “ghost” is spelt with an “h”?  Why isn’t it “gost” or “goast” to rhyme with “most” or “toast”.  The answer to this question, according to David Crystal’s entertaining Spell It Out book, is the whim of a Flemish compositor called, gloriously, Wynkyn de Worde.  He came over from Bruges to work for William Caxton who he set up the first printing press in London in 1476.  However, De Worde’s English wasn’t good, and, like many non-native speakers, he was bewildered by the random nature of its spelling.  So when he saw the word “gast” or “gost” (spelt “gheest” in Flemish), he decided to spell it the Flemish way, with an “h”.  It took a while to catch on, but the Flemish “h” spread to words such as “ghastly” and “aghast”, and was applied to foreign imports such as the Arabian word “goul” which became “ghoul” when it began appearing in translations of the Arabian Nights in the 18th century. 

Crystal has many examples such as this which show that the development of English spelling is as random, unsystematic and anomalous as the British constitution, but as rich a mixture of anachronism, privilege and fashion as the House of Lords.  If you speak Russian, Spanish or even Welsh, you can be fairly sure that what you hear is what you spell.  Russian may have 65 separate verbs of motion and a different alphabet, but taking Russian dictation is a doddle.  In English, on the other hand, there is no consistent phonetic spelling – “cough”, “plough”, “though”, and “rough” all end with the same letters but are pronounced differently!  The author explains how successive scribes, monks, printers and lexicographers tried to standardise the chaos, and the original monks who tried to write down Anglo-Saxon English in a Latin alphabet did a pretty good job.  Every word was pronounced phonetically – so the “g” in “gnat” would be sounded, as would the “k” in “know” – but the alphabet they devised didn’t have enough letters to represent all the sounds in spoken English, and that was where the rot set in.   Scribes started to double vowels to represent different sounds, such as “moon” and “food”, but then the pronunciation changed in the south of England, shortening the same vowel in “blood” and “flood”, so that now “these spellings represent the pronunciation of a thousand years ago”.   Of course, in some parts of the north-east and Scotland, these words are still pronounced with a long “o”, which gives us an idea of how hard it must have been for monks in the south to come up with spellings that made sense in the north. 

Fashion and snobbery have played as big a part in spelling as they have in other parts of English life.  After the Norman invasion, Anglo-Saxon spellings were replaced by French ones: thus “servis” became “service”, and “mys” became “mice”, for instance.  During the Renaissance, scribes looked to Latin for guidance.  Take the word “debt” – in the 13th century this could be spelt “det”, “dett”, “dette”, or “deytt”, but 16th-century writers looked to the Latin word “debitum”, and inserted a silent “b”, linking the word to its Latin counterpart but making it much harder to spell. 

For a long time, there was no stigma attached to variant spellings.  Shakespeare famously wrote his name several ways, but, by the 18th century, Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son that “I know a man of quality who never recovered the ridicule of having spelled “wholesome” without the “w”!  More recently, Dan Quayle, the former US Vice-President, never recovered from spelling “potato” with an “e” on the end when he corrected a pupil’s writing in front of the cameras at a junior school in New Jersey in 1992. 

Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, spelling could still be influenced by individuals – Samuel Johnson did a great deal to fix English spelling in his dictionary.  In America, Noah Webster in 1789 considered it a matter of honour “to have a system of our own, in language as well as government”.  Even today, spelling is more fluid than we might think; “moveable” for example - the style guide of The Times keeps the “e”, while The Guardian prefers “movable”.   

Of course, there are no guides online – the internet is the ultimate spelling democracy.   Take “rhubarb” with its pesky silent “h”: in 2006 there were just a few hundred instances of “rubarb” in the Google database, but by 2011 they had passed the million mark.  “If it carries on like this,” Crystal notes, “rubarb will overtake rhubarb as the commonest online spelling… And where the online orthographic world goes in one decade, I suspect the offline world will go in the next.”  He is relaxed about the use of textspeak but, as the Prime Minister discovered recently, it can be ambiguous.  Crystal also thinks our lives will become much easier as spell-checking algorithms and speech-to-text software improve but, as anyone who struggles with autocorrect knows, that day is a long way off. 

Reading this book made me thankful that English is my native language; the spelling must make it fiendishly hard to learn.  No wonder it is one of the few languages where spelling has become a competitive sport.  A classical education helps, and Crystal is a great believer in explaining the origins of words: “I find it hard to resist the conclusion that, if children were introduced to some basic etymology, many of the ‘famous’ spelling errors would be avoided”.  So, forget “ ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’ “, and bring on Wynkyn de Worde.