Scrabble elicits wonders of words

SPRINGFIELD — If I think of it in mid-swallow, a scene from the 1978 film “Foul Play,” can still make me shoot milk out my nose.

While solving a mystery, co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn are on a fire escape peering in at two elderly women playing Scrabble. On the board, the smiling old ladies have plunked down the mother of all hyphenated bad words.

I fear this memory may have put me in an odd frame of mind for the first Altrusa Club Scrabble tournament.

The cause was impeccable: to support literacy programs at the Warder Literacy Center. The location was unimpeachable: the basement of Covenant Presbyterian Church.

But when I found myself in the first round sitting across the table from a man whose name was spelled the same forward as backward, I grew suspicious — and rightly so.

In the end, Bob and his partner, Mary Jo (or Oj Yram), outscored me and my partner, Maggie, in a most underhanded way: greater competence.

But as a consolation prize, Maggie and I were given Scrabble dictionaries.

Thus was I introduced to zaptiah, a word that sent me to the newsroom’s ancient, unabridged dictionary, a book so thick our HR Department requires us to wear a lumbar belt to use it.

A zaptiah is a Turkish policeman, which brought to mind the following sentence: Sir, I believe the zaptiah just zapped ya with a Taser.

Then came tacnode, “the point on a curve where two ordinary branches of the curve are mutually tangent.”

That could be useful only in directions to a MENSA meeting: “When you come to a tacnode in the road, bear right and look for a mail box shaped like a pocket protector.”

The person taking the wrong tacnode in the road likely would be a ronyon (“a mangy or scabby creature”), and have about him the scent of conine (“a liquid alkaloid with a peculiar odor found in the poison hemlock.”)

He had a smell that could curdle conine.

I was charmed by the word futilitarian, one who views all human activity as futile.

But my favorite of the bunch is hagborn. It’s classic — almost Shakespearean.

In more patriarchal times it meant son-of-a-hag. But in this more egalitarian age, women, too, can be called hagborn.

Dwining seemed interesting, too. It’s the process that lead us to dwindle down. One can only be thankful that pining dogs don’t pindle.

Speaking of bodily functions, the Scrabble dictionary had the word ostiole in it. The definition is “one of the small inhalant orifices of a sponge.” Hide the children.

Finally, there’s fideism (fye-DE-ism). It is not, as I suspected, belief in a dog. But it does define a certain kind of dogmatism: “exclusive reliance on faith, rather than upon reason, especially for philosophical or religious truths.”

It’s in the spirit of fideism, I declare: I shall thrash you next year, Bob. And you, too, Oj Yram.

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By Tom Stafford
Sunday, March 15, 2009

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