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I was playing a game of Scrabble with a friend recently. We agreed on the dictionary to use for challenges and began. Partway through the game, I picked an uncommon word to play and my friend asked me to define the word and use it in a sentence. I asked him if he was issuing a formal Challenge, and he said he wasn't, but that it was an illegal play to play a word that I could not define and use in a sentence. Only after a player has defined the word and used it in a sentence did the option for an opponent to Challenge arise. I can't find anything about this being the case in any official rule set I've seen.

So, according to his rules:

  • If I try to play a word but can't define it and use it in a sentence, I can't play it. The choice of the opponent to challenge or not does not arise, and I have to take my tiles back immediately.
  • If I try to play a word and am able to define it and use it in a sentence, the opponent has a choice to Challenge me if they believe that I misspelled the word and/or that the word does not exist and my definition was pure bullcrap.

This "rule" makes it much harder to intentionally bluff with a fake word. Not only do I need to come up with a word that looks like a reasonable word but also come up with a plausible definition for it. For example,

Compont. Noun. A bridge made of composite materials. "The construction worker used plywood to assemble the compont."

Retrash. Verb. To discard an item as trash that was previously salvaged from a trash receptacle or dump. "The scavenger decided to retrash the old cups that he found in the trash can after he found out that they had holes in them."

Has it ever been a rule in Scrabble that a player must be able to demonstrate knowledge of the definition of or ability to use a word in order to be allowed to play it? In other words, if I know that a word exists but either do not know what part of speech it belongs to or how it is defined, am I allowed to play it?

It does occur to me that such a requirement could be a useful house rule in a classroom setting, so I suspect that this is nothing more than such a house rule that my friend learned from a teacher in school.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Glorfindel
    Feb 3 at 16:05

7 Answers 7

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I'll answer the same as a few other answers.

No

But with a different justification.

Nigel Richards won the 2015 French-language Scrabble World Championship without knowing what the words mean. From https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/07/21/424980378/winner-of-french-scrabble-title-does-not-speak-french:

"He doesn't speak French at all, he just learnt the words," his friend (and former president of the New Zealand Scrabble Association) Liz Fagerlund tells the New Zealand Herald. "He won't know what they mean, wouldn't be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn't think."

From https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jul/21/new-french-scrabble-champion-nigel-richards-doesnt-speak-french:

"He has learned no language logic, just a succession of letter sequences giving rise to words. In his head it’s binary: what draw (of letters) can make a scrabble, what draw can’t."

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    So Scrabble clearly can't be used as a Turing Test. :)
    – Barmar
    Jan 31 at 16:56
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    And this is very reminiscent of the Chinese Room Experiment.
    – Barmar
    Jan 31 at 16:56
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    That's not the only case I've heard of of Scrabble players that don't actually speak the language they are playing in. Jan 31 at 22:55
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    This doesn't answer the question (either of them). Just looking at one set of rules, even if tournament rules doesn't prove that something has not existed in some other ruleset.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 1 at 15:00
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    @ilkkachu, This answer, much like the others, addresses the question as realistically as we can. It is unreasonable to expect us to be able to prove that something has never existed. So we've provided a variety of evidence that knowledge of the definition of a word is not a requirement. And that is clearly the spirit of the question.
    – Doug Deden
    Feb 1 at 16:17
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I hoped this question could be trivially answered with reference to the Official Scrabble Rules but it turns out to be not quite as well defined as you might hope.

The only references to challenges are in the "Setup" section:

Before the game begins, all players should agree upon the dictionary that they will use, in case of a challenge.

and Rule #8 in the "Gameplay" section:

Any play may be challenged before the next player starts a turn. [...] Consult the dictionary for challenges only.

but it doesn't explicitly define what a challenge consists of. We can however refer to the Official North American Tournament Rules which define in Sections IV.J and IV.K the procedure for a challenge:

IV.J. Adjudicating Challenges by Computer

The challenger writes the challenged word(s) on a slip of paper [...] The challenger types the word(s) being challenged. [...] The adjudication result is marked on the challenge slip.

(IV.K is very similar but for human adjudication)

In this case, it is clear that there is no need for the challenged player to be able to define the word, use it in a sentence or similar.

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    I can confirm, having played Scrabble in tournaments, that you do not need to be able to define the words you use. A big part of tournament prep is memorizing the two-letter and three-letter word lists, but it's just about the words themselves. You only look up definitions to either help you remember the words or if you're curious.
    – Zags
    Jan 31 at 15:42
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    @Zags I see it going down like this: Player A plays a word they don't know the definition of. Player B asks "do you know what that means?" Player A: "Maybe. Maybe not. Challenge the word and find out.". So then it's on the other player(s) to challenge player A.
    – BruceWayne
    Jan 31 at 16:56
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    @BruceWayne The problem with a challenged player needing to define the word is how one would adjudicate whether or not their definition is sufficiently accurate. I know the meaning of plenty of words that I can't produce a dictionary-grade definition for. If my recollection serves, "define irony" was in vogue as an interview question at consulting firms a number of years back.
    – Zags
    Jan 31 at 17:29
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    Irony? It's a bit like coppery! Seriously, another problem would be where a player knows one of the meanings of a word, but the chosen dictionary happens not to list it (because it's an obscure use).
    – TripeHound
    Feb 1 at 7:29
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    @Zags All I know is it's not like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife Feb 2 at 10:27
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No, there's no such rule, and there never has been. I assume your opponent tacitly acknowledges this by not giving a definition and example sentence each time they play a word.

The rules specify:

The first player combines two or more of his or her letters to form a word and places it on the board to read either across or down with one letter on the center square.

The second player, and then each in turn, adds one or more letters to those already played to form new words.

Nothing about providing definitions or example sentences. If it were a required rule, it would be in the rules. Such a requirement has never been in the rules.

You don't even have to provide them in the case of a challenge. If challenged, just look up the word in the agreed-upon dictionary.

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  • This doesn't seem to answer the question of if there ever has been such a rule.
    – ilkkachu
    Feb 1 at 15:07
  • @ilkkachu Edited for clarity. Feb 1 at 17:49
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Has it ever been a rule in Scrabble that a player must be able to demonstrate knowledge of the definition of or ability to use a word in order to be allowed to play it?

This is asking to prove the non-existence of something, and that's hard to do for certain, since it requires exhaustively listing every set of rules that have ever existed, over all the 50+ years the game has existed. That's quite inconvenient, but apparently someone has already done at least part of that.

There's an article online from wordswithfriendscheat.io about the changes to Scrabble rules here. It references this rules collection by Donald Sauter, titled "Scrabble - Changes to the Box Top Rules, 1948 - 1999".

As far as I can see, neither page mentions anything about the players having to define the word they play. E.g. in the 1948 rules, it's mentioned that the player needs to announce their score, nothing about even announcing the word itself, let alone what it means. Also, Wikipedia has a section on Scrabble rules evolution, and it also lacks any mention of that rule.

Of course it's also not in the current Hasbro rules, or the Mattel rules here (PDF). The wording is similar, the player is just expected to play the word.

So, as far as the printed rules are concerned, the answer seems to be "probably not".

Though if we count translated versions of the game and similar variants with different names, who knows if one has printed rules to that effect. (Obviously it does exist at least as a house rule, otherwise there'd be no question here.)


However, note that the rules originally (well, the 1948 rules linked above) stated that:

Any words found in a standard dictionary are permitted except proper nouns, foreign words, abbreviations and words requiring apostrophies or hyphens. Consult a dictionary only to check spelling or usage. Any word may be challenged until the player has completed his turn.

and that there was no formal process for challenges, nor a penalty. The way it's written arguably implies that words not in a dictionary are just not allowed, challenged or not. Your friend may be just used to something more friendly than the conflict-oriented challenge rule more suited for tournaments. Asking someone to define the word might just be a simple first step in verifying it, before reaching for the dictionary. (Not much use if someone really wants to cheat as they can just make something up. See also the second strip here about Calvin and Hobbes playing Scrabble.)

The Mattel rules linked above have a similar requirement on the words, and while they have the challenge rule, they don't have a penalty for the challenger in case they wrong.


Originally, the question was titled like this:

Do I have to know what a word means in order to play it in Scrabble?

And in the context of playing with friends, well, I would say what you have to do depends on the people involved.

The way you play a game in a friendly setting is up to you and other players involved. Some may like a friendly game, some may like the strict challenge rules and no-one from the outside can force how they should play. Some use yet other variant rules, like the one about exchanging a blank tile from the board with the corresponding letter tile. Some printed versions of Scrabble even explicitly mention house rules, and suggest some such.

Of course, whatever the game, the rules should always be decided before the game. But especially when the game is this old, more fuzziness is bound to come up, and more discussion possibly needed.

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    +1 for the part about proving the non-existence of something, and for the data points in support of that goal. Nicely done.
    – Doug Deden
    Feb 1 at 16:25
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You are not required to be able to define a word or demonstrate knowledge of a word to play it in Scrabble.

These are the tournament rules for adjudicating a challenge (emphasis is mine; credit to Philip Kendall for finding this):

The challenger writes the challenged word(s) on a slip of paper (the words may be changed at any time before the computer has adjudicated the play). Both players verify that the word(s) are written as played. Both players place all racked tiles facedown. Both players walk to the computer station without speaking or disturbing others. The challenger types the word(s) being challenged. Both players verify that all the word(s) have been entered correctly. The player being challenged presses the adjudication key (usually TAB). The adjudication result is marked on the challenge slip. Both players return to their board without speaking or disturbing others.

Note that the tournament rules not only have no reference to a player needing to define a word, the challenge procedure has no verbal communication required after the challenge is announced. In fact, large parts of the challenge procedure prohibit players from speaking.

I can confirm, from my own experience in Scrabble in tournaments, that this is the process for challenging. You write down the words that you are challenging, after which a judge or computer determines whether or not those are all allowed words. There is no need to define them.

There are two big reasons reasons why this is the case:

  1. Scrabble is a game designed to not have disputes. Scrabble has an official dictionary in order to eliminate endless debates on what is or is not a valid word. It's a really good feature of the game's ecosystem. Requiring a player to define a word in response to a challenge would introduce a ton of ambiguity. How do you decide whether or not a definition is valid? There would be too much human interpretation at play.

  2. Requiring definitions would put even more emphasis on rote memorization. Knowing more legal Scrabble words already gives you a big edge. A key part of tournament prep is memorizing the two-letter and three-letter word lists, as well as common formulas for expanding words (like which words can take "re-" as a prefix or "-er" as a suffix). Sure, there's some work to this, but what you don't need to do is study definitions for words you already know.

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With regard to the question of whether it has ever been a rule:

It is not in the current rules, and Wikipedia provides a history of the rule changes that have been made since the first rules were promulgated, in which nothing related to this rule appears:

The "box rules" included in each copy of the North American edition have been edited four times: in 1953, 1976, 1989, and 1999.[18]

The major changes in 1953 were as follows.

It was made clear that: words could be played through single letters already on the board, a player could play a word parallel and immediately adjacent to an existing word provided all crossing words formed were valid, the effect of two premium squares was to be compounded multiplicatively. The previously unspecified penalty for having one's play successfully challenged was stated: withdrawal of tiles and loss of turn.

The major changes in 1976 were as follows.

It was made clear that the blank tile beats an A when drawing to see who goes first. A player could pass their turn, doing nothing. A loss-of-turn penalty was added for challenging an acceptable play. If final scores are tied, the player whose score was highest before adjusting for unplayed tiles is the winner;[19] in tournament play, a tie is counted as half a win for both players.[6]

The editorial changes made in 1989 did not affect gameplay.[18]

The major changes in 1999 were as follows.

It was made clear that: a tile can be shifted or replaced until the play has been scored, a challenge applies to all the words made in the given play. Playing all seven tiles is officially called a "bingo" in North America and a "bonus" elsewhere. A change in the wording of the rules could have been interpreted as meaning that a player may form more than one word on one row on a single turn.

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I think the other answers here are mostly right, but something along these lines has indeed been a real rule of Scrabble . . . for certain endangered languages (where Scrabble is being used as a tool for language preservation).

For example, "Words should be fun: Scrabble as a tool for language preservation in Tuvan and other local languages" [PDF] mentions that:

One of the rules added to the Tuvan Scrabble instructions was formulated with this very goal in mind: a player must be able to at least attempt to define any word that s/he plays. If it turns out that the semantic boundaries of this word are blurry in the player’s mind, this provides a perfect opening for the word to be discussed with the other players.

(I've heard of a similar rule for a Native American language — I think Dakota — where players were required to provide an English translation when playing a word. In that case I believe the other player didn't even have to ask, it was just a regular part of playing a turn. But I read that news article at least 15 years ago, and can't find it now.)

Of course, such versions of Scrabble are typically played among such small groups that it can be hard to say where "official rules" end and "house rules" begin.

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