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.


3 thoughts on “Word games: SOWPODS vs. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

  1. I am not prepared to concede the (to me) significant leap from "predecessors to SOWPODS were designed with half an eye on [the] home market" to "given that SOWPODS et al. were designed with casual play in mind too." I must also contest "Is a dictionary designed partly for professional writers and editors [by which one assumes you mean M-W] really more…suitable for casual word games?" I don’t have any reason to believe that M-W was "designed" (in whole or in part) for professionals. It is the customary reference for trade book publishers because it was one of the better options. The magazine industry standardized on the American Heritage dictionary instead. So it goes.


  2. Anyone playing a word game with me who tries to disallow a word in the Chambers Dictionary had best be prepared for fisticuffs. M-W is strictly for those who like their oatmeal overboiled, paste-like and unflavored.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s