by Kevin Burton
“Scrabble” is not a German word meaning “one letter off,” that’s just my little joke.
Scrabble also at its essence is not a word game as commonly supposed, but a game of mathematics and strategic placement of little tile soldiers.
For the words used in scrabble aren’t words so much as agreed-upon acceptable maneuvers. At your disposal you have normal words such as “tiger” or “kale” alongside “xu.”
What does xu mean? Doesn’t matter. It’s in the Official Scrabble-Players Dictionary. Use it and move on.
This brings me to a recent edition of “Words at Play,” a feature on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary website.
Under the headline “Words for things you didn’t know have names” the dictionary presents words that have zero chance of worming their way into my vocabulary and can only be useful in Scrabble (the shorter ones anyway).
Here is what they offered up:
“Philtrum: “the vertical groove on the median line of the upper lip. Origin: In Greek, the primary meaning of philtrum is ‘love potion’ – which suggests that seductive powers were attributed to this facial feature.”
If you play the word “rum” in just the right place in a Scrabble game, I can add “philt” to make philtrum. Otherwise the word is not useful.
“Ferrule: the protective point or knob on the far end of an umbrella. Origin: Ferrule comes from the Latin viriola, meaning ‘small bracelet.’ This makes more sense when you consider that ferrule is also the term for the metal band at the end of a table leg (or similar object) that strengthens it or prevents it from splitting.”
Aglet: the tag covering the ends of a lace or point – e.g., the reinforcement at the end of a shoelace. Origin: Aglet indirectly comes from the Latin acus, ‘needle’ – as does the word acute.”
Do you remember the Bob Newhart show episode when one of the characters had a job making aglets, but he didn’t have the word for it? The only way he could describe his job was to point to his shoelaces? Remember that?
Of course you don’t.
“Punt: an indentation at the bottom of a molded glass bottle. Note: Although it remains a matter of debate, explanations for the function of the punt include strengthening the bottle and also reducing its holding capacity.”
This noun definition is hopelessly swallowed up by the verb football term. Punt is what you do on fourth and 17.
“Lunule: a crescent-shaped body part or marking (such as the whitish mark at the base of a fingernail). Origin: This mark got its name because of its shape: lunule comes from the Latin luna, meaning ‘moon.’”
Good Scrabble word when you need to dump more than one U.
“Tittle: the dot over the letters i and j. Origin: Tittle comes from the Latin titulus, which originally meant ‘title.’ Titulus came to refer to marks such as the abbreviated form of n written over a vowel (like the Spanish tilde, which indirectly got its name from titulus), and then to any mark above a letter.”
This one I have heard of because of the Bible. Matthew 5:18 (KVJ) reads, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”
The definition of jot, as a noun, is “the least bit: iota.”
“Glabella: the smooth prominence of the forehead between the eyebrows. Origin: Glabella derives from the Latin glaber, ‘bald’ or ‘smooth.’”
Try dropping that gem into casual conversation.
“Muntin: a strip separating panes of glass in a window sash. Origin: Named for the way it sticks up from the window, muntin comes from the French monter, ‘to rise.’”
My friend Angie who works for a company in the building industry has never heard of this word.
“Lemniscate: the infinity symbol (or more precisely, ‘a figure-eight shaped curve whose equation in polar coordinates is ρ2=a2 cos 2θ or ρ2=a2 sin 2θ“).’ Origin:
Lemniscate comes from a Latin word that means ‘with hanging ribbons’ – an origin that’s reflected in the symbol’s graceful shape.
“Fourchette: the strip or shaped piece used for the sides of the fingers of a glove. Origin: The French word fourchette (pronounced “foor-SHET”) means ‘fork.’ It was applied to this item presumably because of the forking pattern of the fingers.”
Sounds like the last name of a hockey player.
Did these words fill you with delight or dismay? Use these words at your own risk. Nobody will know what you’re talking about.
And just to close the loop, “xu” is a monetary unit of Vietnam. Happy Scrabbling kids!