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Word Games with Letter Arrangement

These games with words are for more than one person rather than the types of puzzle etc that are normally done by individuals, which are available everywhere.

One type of word game involves forming a word out of an arbitrary collection of letters as in the commercially available Scrabble, Kanugo or Lexicon. Skill is a matter of finding the combination that makes a word with the maximum possible score, i.e. getting the Q on a treble letter square in Scrabble etc, and of knowing the frequencies of letters in the Scrabble set of 100 tiles – 12 Es, 6 Ts, 1 Q, etc, similar to but not quite the same as the frequency list for English as a whole. This usually relies on an arbitrary set of words, such as those in an established dictionary, rather than everyday English vocabulary. Books on Scrabble include such two letter words as: aa, bo, ka, ky, od, qi, ri, xi and ut. A less familiar variant is Up Words, where players pile letter cards on top of other letters so the the words are never fixed as they are in Scrabble.

But all of these are essentially playing with surface features of words i.e. the letters and their sequence not with the essence of the word – its meaning. Does anybody care what aa means? (In fact the OED has two entries for aa, one obsolete meaning stream’, one alive meaning  ‘a rough, scoriaceous lava’). The numbers of Sudoku have as much connection with our knowledge of English as the arbitrary words of competition Scrabble.

Pen and paper letter arrangement games usually require at least a knowledge of English spelling. Ghosts was a favourite of James Thurber. In this one person chooses a word without telling anyone else and announces the first letter, say b for British. The next player has to continue spelling a possible word and adds a to get ba for battle. And so on. The trick is that the player must not finish the word, once it has passed 3 letters in length. Players may be challenged to test that they are thinking of a real English word. Lives are lost when words are finished and when challenges are failed; three lives gone and you’re a ghost. In a challenging version known as Superghosts, letters may be added at the end, in the middle or at the beginning of the word.