John Chew Offers Inside Look at NASPA and Scrabble Word Lists

John Chew with Scrabble board

Courtesy of John Chew

As Scrabble is such a complex and detail-driven game, the need for rules and order cannot be overstated. This is especially true in light of our ever-changing language. New words pop up and old ones lose their importance. That is why people like John Chew, a leader of the NASPA Scrabble group, are always working on updating the Scrabble tournament word lists. Passionate and knowledgeable experts keep the game fun for players worldwide.

Importance of the Word List

Scrabble started as a humble word game that friends and family could play together to pass the time. Since its early days in the late 1930s, Scrabble has grown to become one of the most popular board games in the world, selling hundreds of millions of copies. It eventually spawned numerous updates and spinoffs, like Super Scrabble.

A Serious Competitive Scene

Scrabble did not stay in the realm of casual play. The genius of its design allowed the game to flourish far beyond its original purpose. Now, it is a favorite game for thousands upon thousands of passionate word lovers. The competitive Scrabble community has taken the game into the realm of serious play. In almost all respects, it is on the same level as chess and other classic strategy games.

It was this status that facilitated the need for organization. Hasbro and Mattel, the companies that publish the game, were the first to offer official Scrabble rules, but more was needed for the growing tournament scene. That’s how certain organizations came to be, such as WESPA, which organizes tournaments outside of North America.

The Emergence of NASPA

For serious Scrabble play in the United States and Canada, there is NASPA, the North American Scrabble Players Association. This organization is home to the continent’s most passionate Scrabble fans, people who have dedicated a lot of time and effort to growing and nurturing the Scrabble scene. 

One of the most important services they provide is managing the NASPA Word List (NWL). This is the standard word list for all sanctioned Scrabble tournaments in North America.

It takes a lot of work and planning to put together such a massive and important word list, and we wanted to know more about the process for creating it. So, we reached out to John Chew, chief executive officer of NASPA, to learn more about what he and his fellow committee members do to deliver this list to the Scrabble community.

Who Is John Chew? A Brief History  

John Chew has been an active member of the Scrabble community for nearly three decades. He began his journey with the game in 1993 when he was simply looking for a new hobby: 

“In 1993, to go way back, was the last I remember thinking I had spare time and that this was a problem that needed solving,” Chew recalls. “So, then I started playing Scrabble online on what was then the very first online Scrabble server. And some friends I made on that ended up asking me where I was from, and they said ‘Oh, well, if you’re from Toronto, there’s a huge Scrabble club there, you should go there and play Scrabble with real people.’”

John Chew at Canadian Scrabble ChampionshipJohn Chew at Canadian Scrabble Championship

Running the Local Scrabble Club

From there, John Chew spent the next five years playing in tournaments and becoming skilled at the game. After that time though, John was presented with the choice to be involved with and help the Scrabble scene from a more administrative perspective:

“And then, the guy that was running the club passed away. He actually died quite young relatively suddenly of an aggressive form of cancer. Since I was already running the statistics for the club, they asked if I would take over running the club, and I say, ‘Sure.’ And they said, ‘Oh, good. The tournament’s next month.’ And I said, ‘What?’”

At that time, running a tournament demanded a lot of acquired knowledge and skill. Most everything was done manually, and Chew wasn’t sure he could manage it with so little time to prepare:

“I said that sounds like something that requires years of experience to do quickly. I’d rather write a program to do it, ‘cause I’m a software developer and mathematician by training. So, I wrote a program, and people liked that. And people said, ‘Can you come to Boston to run a program with your software?’ Or eventually Malta or Cape Town or Bangkok? So, for a while, I was just running around the world running tournaments.”

Creating and Running NASPA

Advancing further into more responsibilities for the Scrabble community, John went on to run the website for NASPA’s predecessor, the National Scrabble Association. When that site and group closed in 2009, John Chew and Chris Cree created NASPA to take its place. 

Since then, John Chew has led NASPA and served on most of its committees. It’s been an incredible journey for John, who started as someone looking for a new game to play. As he puts it:

“I went from happily playing the game, to running tournaments watching people play the game, to sitting on committees to tell people how to tell people how to play the game, to running a small, non-profit organization that tries to set the policy for people who tell other people who tell other people how to play Scrabble.”

Insight Into the NASPA Word List

If you play Scrabble, whether you play casually with friends or you’re a seasoned tournament player, you need to use a decent word list. As John Chew explained, a decent word list requires a lot of work and planning to design and then publish. 

WordFinder: How often is the word list updated?

John Chew: Once every few years we update our dictionary, usually in sync with Merriam-Webster’s publication of its Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.

[John also explained a bit more about how and why the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) is published.]

JC: The OSPD is a paperback and produced under license to Hasbro by Merriam-Webster as a fairly large profit center for Merriam-Webster. It’s a product, it’s a product that they love, but it’s a product. It has to make a profit.

The two main constraints on it are that it has to be paperback-sized… they exclude words more than eight-letter words… And the other weird thing about it is that it has to be construed as a dictionary rather than a word list. And that is because, for historical reasons, neither Hasbro nor Mattel apparently has the rights to publish Scrabble-branded word lists, because this was sold separately from the rights to produce Scrabble-branded board games before Hasbro came on the scene.

[This is why the OSPD must include definitions. It allows Merriam-Webster to classify its product as a dictionary rather than a word list.]

JC: We get away with it because we’re not branding it Scrabble. We’re calling it the NASPA Word List, and it’s only a members-only product.

Added Words and Their Sources

When updating the NASPA Word List, John and everyone at NASPA need to know how many words they are going to add to the latest version. They also need to make sure that their sources are reputable and appropriate for the people who will be using them in the game.

WF: How many words are added at a time? Is there a high or low average for the number of words?

JC: The words that typically end up getting added are words that Merriam-Webster has added to their online word list, and the number of words that are added depends on how long it’s been since the last update and how volatile the language has been during that time. But it’s usually hundreds.

We are gradually working through our other sources… and the number of words we add from there is constrained by our own personal resources. And that’s usually a few thousand words.

For example, in the next edition, we’re working off of the Canadian edition of the Oxford Dictionary. We’re going to add all of the remaining words that are 11 letters and longer, having done the nine-letter words two editions ago and the 10-letter words in the previous edition… We think we can get all the rest of them in. 

[John checked the numbers for some of the past few editions of the word list to give us an idea of the average.] 

JC: There were 3,385 words added in 2018. That had been a two-year update, and in 2016, there were only 1,106 words added. In 2014, which was a more substantial update, there were 8,941 words added. 

WF: Do you ever add words that are not present in one of your reference dictionaries?

JC: No, never. I’ve actually been in favor of expanding the sources a little bit... I would really like to add a good technical dictionary. But the problem is that we need to understand our market and who wants to be playing with these words… The reason we use the college dictionaries is that they are intended to be collections of words that anyone with a college education might randomly come across in non-specialist literature.

We do find that technical jargon tends to take a longer time to work its way into general dictionaries than most people would like who use the technical jargon. I have argued in the past that we should add additional dictionaries, but not successfully. 

WF: Do NASPA members who are not part of the committee ever provide any input on which words to include?

JC: Yeah. I do keep a running list between editions of suggestions received from members. I welcome them. Usually, someone will write in and say, “Why isn’t the word ‘spork’ good?” or “What about the names of chemical elements like ‘nihonium’?” People saying we should have more of what Merriam-Webster calls “pronunciation spellings,” like “gonna,” “gotta” and “kinda.” 

I’ll consider it seriously for the next edition, but please check to make sure that it’s in a college-level dictionary. And if it’s not, then there’s no hope of it getting into our word list. Then, I give them the process for submitting the word for consideration to Merriam-Webster and say what they will want is printed citations of the word in a variety of contexts demonstrating that there’s more than one group of people using it and that it’s been used over a period of time. 

So yeah, I do have a list at any given time of maybe 100 words that people have suggested.

WF: Do you ever communicate with the editors of the OSPD or other dictionaries about which words to include? 

JC: We have a special relationship with Merriam-Webster that we don’t have with any of the other dictionary publishers. For the other dictionary publishers, it’s a matter of buying a copy of their book… With Merriam-Webster, it’s a much easier process. They just email us a correct, full list of words they’ve got and a list of words they’re planning on adding. And we send them back a list of words we’ve found from other sources we’re planning on adding. We try to bring those lists as close together as possible. 

Sometimes, if there’s a question of whether they should include a word in for Scrabble, they’ll ask us for expert advice. 

The most notable time when that happened was when they were talking about adding the word ‘OK,’ which previously had been good in its four-letter spelling of “o-k-a-y.” But they realized there was no reason, that they could see, why the two-letter spelling “o-k” should not be acceptable.

[John explained that adding such a small word would potentially have big ramifications.]

JC: That was a particularly thorny issue because, in the third edition of the OSPD, they added a bunch of words like “qed,” which were initialisms. That is to say, they’re words pronounced by reading out their letters one at a time… If you start including those, then the number of small words gets much larger, and it becomes a very different game. So, we’re sensitive to that.

[After some discussion though, NASPA and Merriam-Webster came to a decision.]

JC: The decision we eventually made was based on the history of the word. Nobody really knows where the word “OK” came from, and there’s no convincing evidence that it is, in fact, an abbreviation for anything. 

The Complexities of Removing Words

While NASPA adds new words to their word list with each update, there also come times when they need to remove words. Most often, they are words that are offensive or crude in nature. When the time comes to remove these words, John Chew and other committee members must create a plan to handle the situation. The topic of removing words from the word list is sensitive for a number of reasons. 

WF: What are the determining factors for when words are removed from the NASPA Word List, such as the issue with offensive language?

JC: Back in the mid-1990s, Hasbro received a complaint about the presence of the verb “to jew,” an offensive term meant “to bargain with somebody.”… And Merriam-Webster said, “Whoops,” and took all of the offensive words out. 

At the time, there was a lot of protest from the competitive community saying, “We don’t want words being taken out of our playing lexicon because they’re allegedly offensive to some people.”… And so, the compromise that was struck at that point was that we would have our own tournament lexicon where we would keep all of the offensive words and we would stop using the OSPD as our official tournament reference. Which suited most of us fine, because of the issues of the OPSD not including nine-letter words and longer words, which was something that came up fairly often.

[While John did understand their point, he also understood the importance of how the community appeared to people outside of it. An attitude that “words have no meaning” became common in the tournament scene. With this idea came the real concern that people would view Scrabble players and tournaments as not being appropriate for all types of people.]

JC: We get people walking into our clubs, and see these words being played, and saying, “Why are you playing these words?” The usual answer to them is, “These words have no meaning, and if you want to become a member of our association or club, then you must accept that this word in this context has no meaning.” 

But we want to be as inclusive an organization as possible. And at the time, we were licensees of Hasbro, and as soon as someone asked this, I knew Hasbro was going to say, “Take them all out, because we don’t want to be associated with anything of that sort.” 

And I asked our player advisory board what they thought about it, and they were kind of split, because they could sort of see removing the n-word, but then the question was, “Where do we stop with that?” That was a difficult question because we historically have tried very hard to avoid editorializing in our selection of word lists. We try to make it as mechanical a process as possible, and we present it that way to our players.

[The challenge of removing the offensive words did not stop at the opposition. Words don’t hold the same level of offense in every region, which makes it hard to decide when to remove them.]

JC: One [word] that I was very personally disappointed by was the word “greybeard.”… And it’s listed as being an offensive word in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. In our code of conduct, we have wording that says you cannot harass or discriminate against someone on the basis of their age. Well, clearly, having a grey beard correlates with age… Someone who wanted to make a case out of it could ask for a disciplinary case against you. I guess. 

But, I personally don’t find it all that offensive. Maybe I’m not that old enough… It would be fair to say it’s not a complimentary word [rather] than to say it’s really meant to cause offense. There are many words that would cause much more offense. So, it was a question of “How should we interpret that tag?”

But, worse was the fact that up here in Canada, we don’t spell greybeard the way that you guys do down there. We spell it “g-r-e-y-beard,” and you spell it “g-r-a-y-beard.” And we could not find any reference that said “graybeard” with an A was offensive. So, we ended up in a ridiculous situation where it’s only offensive to spell “greybeard” with an E. 

WF: And is there ever a time when a removed word is added back to the list?

JC: This is one of the things that, now that we are not officially licensed by Hasbro, we’re going to be fixing over the next year. And then we need to come up with a new set of rules that say, “The n-word stays out, but words like ‘greybeard,’ we need to let them back in just because it makes us look silly.”

John Chew’s Final Words on the Matter

As our interview was wrapping up, WordFinder had one final question for John Chew. Taking a sharp turn from the serious matter of hot-issue words, we wanted to know about John’s dreams for the NASPA Word List.

WF: Now for a fun question. If you could add any word or words you wanted to the NASPA Word List while still following the rules for what makes a Scrabble word valid, what would you choose?

JC: I’ve got two answers to that. One is that I’ve already lived that dream. In 2014, I put more pressure on the system than I otherwise would have put to include the word “xed.” Because, if you look in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, all of the letters are defined as the letters themselves. And, all of the letters are defined with their plurals. 

In theory, we should be able to play “qs” because it’s in the dictionary and it’s a word. We don’t because we say it’s a plural of a non-word, and the only reason it’s a plural of a non-word is because Q is only one letter, and you need two letters to have a Scrabble word. 

“X,” however, is different in that it’s a verb defined as “to cross out.” And this had bugged me since I started playing the game… I eventually strong-armed everyone and they got tired of arguing with me, and I said, “This is the word that I want to see in there.” So yeah, that was my dream word.

Xed defintion with visualXed defintion with visual

The other word, though, that I would personally like to see added that is not going to get added for a little while, refers to a neurological disorder that I recently found out that I suffer from, which is aphantasia.

[As we were talking, John went to Merriam-Webster’s website to see if the word had happened to be added to the dictionary recently.]

JC: I’m going to go see if my buddies at Merriam-Webster have added it yet to their lexicon… 

It is in there. Oh, nice… Then, that’s going to be in our next edition. Well, that’s two dreams fulfilled. (laughs)

Aphantasia means, to quote Merriam-Webster, “the inability to form mental images of real or imaginary people, places, or things.”

[So, as a pleasant surprise, we got a sneak peek of a word that, to John's delight, will be eligible for the next NASPA Word List.]

More About NASPA and Their Word List

We want to thank John Chew again for taking the time to speak with us about NASPA Word List and the work that goes into creating it. We appreciate his willingness to explain its history and how updating and managing it is an ongoing process. 

If you would like to learn more about NASPA and the word list they provide to the competitive Scrabble community, you can find more details on their website’s frequently asked questions page. You can also read our own article about NASPA, which provides a comprehensive overview of the group.

Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.


See more popular articles