As the granddaddy of word-tile board games, Scrabble has long made clear what does and doesn’t count as a playable word. As Stefan Fatsis, the author of the book Word Freak about the competitive Scrabble world, has noted, when the game was first marketed in 1948, the rules were spelled out right inside the box: “Any words found in a standard dictionary are permitted except those capitalized, those designated as foreign words, abbreviations, and words requiring apostrophes or hyphens.”
The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, first published in 1978, has followed those instructions to the letter. And when an open-source alternative to the Scrabble dictionary called ENABLE (an acronym for Enhanced North American Benchmark Lexicon) was released in 1997, it too considered abbreviations verboten. ENABLE, free from the proprietary burdens imposed by Scrabble’s trademark holders (Hasbro in the U.S. and Canada, and Mattel elsewhere), became a popular word list for game-makers developing their own Scrabble spinoffs, including, in 2009, a little game called Words With Friends.
The 174,000 words on the ENABLE list have served Words With Friends well over its eight-year history, ever since its first development by Newtoy (which was bought out by Zynga in 2010). While Words With Friends has enough differences from Scrabble, such as the distribution of letters and point values, to keep them from being sued by Hasbro and Mattel, the “no abbreviation” rule has been one point of agreement shared by the two games—until now.
According to Gurpreet Singh, the product director of Words With Friends, the new Social Dictionary is one way that the game is responding to player feedback. Every day, Zynga fields more than 5,000 suggestions for new words to make playable, and many of these have gone into the dictionary expansion. Interestingly, though, the Words With Friends suggestion form warns that they’re unable to add words from the traditional no-go categories: proper nouns, words with hyphens or apostrophes … and abbreviations.
So how did BFF, FOMO, and TFW make the cut among the 50,000 new words? When the Social Dictionary was being created, there was no attempt to include all abbreviations. “There are no hard and fast rules,” Singh told me—and when it comes to abbreviations, “Where do you stop?”
For now, there’s just a limited number of abbreviations included in the Social Dictionary, but Singh kept the door open to adding more. (Sorry, you can’t play OMG, LOL, WTF, BTW, or FYI just yet.) “We’re learning and evolving from talking to our players,” Singh said. “We want to make sure our player base is excited by these words. That’s our barometer.”
Singh also acknowledged that the game developers are “not aiming to be most correct from a dictionary perspective.” This is another way that Zynga has set Words With Friends apart from the more lexically straitlaced Scrabble. As the name suggests, the game is supposed to be a social experience that you enjoy “with friends,” so why shouldn’t the limits of acceptable words be more free and easy?