Word games: SOWPODS vs. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

This is to further an interesting discussion about which dictionary is appropriate for arbitrating word games at Seattle Cosmic Game Night and elsewhere. My friend Dave Howell prefers Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, because he considers it authoritative.


I prefer SOWPODS, because it is the word list used in all international Scrabble tournaments, and if it's good enough for serious tournament play of a serious word game like Scrabble, it ought to be good enough for casual play of lighter word games like Boggle at Seattle Cosmic or most of the games we play at Tim Schutz's group Word Nerds. (In other words, I guess I too am claiming it's authoritative, in a way.)


One of the great things about SOWPODS is that it's designed specifically for playing word games. For example, it does not contain any proper nouns, unlike Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, so no judgment calls are necessary there. There are also simple rules in the front matter of the bound copy of SOWPODS (Chambers Official Scrabble Words, International Edition) that describe proper and improper ways to pluralize nouns, and so on.


One of Dave's complaints about Scrabble dictionaries in general is that they are inflated with lots of two- and three-letter "garbage words" intended to make it easier to score in Scrabble. It's true there are a lot of weird little words in SOWPODS, but perforce they are only a small percentage of the overall vocabulary; there are only so many two-letter words you can make. In any case, these short words are irrelevant to Boggle (at least the way we play it) because only words that are four letters or longer score.

In any case, I believe my bound copy of SOWPODS refers American players to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for words longer than nine letters, so that should make Dave happy.

There are a couple of other advantages to SOWPODS. The bound copy does not include any definitions of words, so checking whether a word is present is a quick and simple decision. Is it in the word list? If not, can you make it with the simple prefix/suffix rules? OK, you're done. If you really need a definition, type define:myword into Google, and you'll get a bunch of results that may not even be in M-W.

Further, digital copies of SOWPODS are readily available for PCs and smartphones, allowing interesting textual analysis, such as the list I recently made of all palindromic words in the English language.


This can come in handy in the middle of a word game; smartphone apps enable you to search SOWPODS for anagrams of a given string, and so on. I'm not suggesting cheating here, but consensual analysis of a position can be instructive.

To sum up, while I recognize that Dave's favorite dictionary is considered an authoritative resource by many English-language writers and editors (although I have some issues with the way Dave seems to construe the word "authoritative"), and while Merriam-Webster's is the go-to dictionary for American players if you have the good fortune to make a word longer than nine letters, it seems to me that a dictionary or word list such as SOWPODS that has been designed with care specifically for word game play is more appropriate our game groups.


Ludism.org migration complete

The server for Ludism.org and related sites has been successfully relocated. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please return to using the regular email addresses for Ron and Marty Hale-Evans (rwhe@ludism.org and marty@martynet.org, respectively).

Planned Ludism.org outage; temporary email addresses for Hale-Evanses

Because the Hale-Evans household is moving, there will be a temporary outage of the server for Ludism.org and related sites this weekend. We hope it will be brief.

Until further notice, please use the following addresses for email:

Ron: ludism@gmail.com
Marty: queenofswords@gmail.com

Although mail sent to our regular addresses will probably arrive eventually, this is the fastest and surest way to reach us for now.