Choosing my words carefully

Image of Robert Shrimsley

Happiness was a four-letter word. We were nearing the end of a family bout of Scrabble, a game I loathe and at which I normally lose to my wife (these two facts may not be unrelated), when suddenly victory was in my grasp. I had the letters for a triple-word score that would clinch the game. The only snag was that the kids were there and my four-letter word was, well, a four-letter word. Not just any four-letter word, mind, but one of the high-end obscenities.

Actually, high-end doesn’t quite do justice to the word. To be accurate, it was the Rolls-Royce of profanity; the top-of-the-line four-letter word; one of the few with a retained power to shock – and possibly the only one still not known by children. So these were the options: scandalous behaviour in front of the kids and a household row on one hand; a rare Scrabble victory over my wife, on the other. Whole episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm have been built on such moments. Of course, Larry David is not a role model for a harmonious life so I knew what I had to do. There was only one acceptable course of action with children present. But then again, I reflected, was I really setting the right example?

We British are famous, after all, for teaching our children to lose graciously; maybe this was an opportunity to give them a lesson instead in winning gracelessly. It was only a word; it was only a game of Scrabble. This was a chance to demonstrate that winners are those who defy convention; those who grasp that actually it isn’t the taking part that matters, it’s the victory. What, I mulled, would Douglas Jardine have done? England’s cricket captain during the infamous “Bodyline” tour surely offers a fine example of defiant pursuit of victory in the face of worldwide condemnation. Would he have surrendered the crown just to avoid the opprobrium of completing his children’s lexicon a little early?

I worked through other possible lines of defence: “It’s in the dictionary”: the pedant’s defence and probably not a winning argument in this social situation. OK then, how about: “Look, they’re going to learn it anyway. Better they hear it from us.” There was also the possibility of lying about the word’s meaning – although I’d have to ensure the false definition was of something unlikely to crop up in general conversation. We wouldn’t want them casually dropping it into discussion with science teachers under the impression that it was a newly discovered constellation in the Orion Nebula. Perhaps I could morph the whole issue into a general assault on Scrabble, which I dislike as much for the tedious delays that accompany each turn as for the swanky pretension of many of its aficionados. It was after all typical of this game richly to reward knowledge of words that no one ever uses while frowning upon those that pepper ordinary urban conversation. Some would claim this point in Scrabble’s defence – but then we are talking about words which are only ever deployed in the game itself, words one cannot imagine even falling from the mellifluous mouth of Stephen Fry. Ubiquitarianism, for example, is not common in modern parlance; nor does one often come across jacquard (a type of loom apparently worth 333 points if used to maximum effect). No one actually spells out letters of the alphabet in real life, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who can enlighten me on the belief system built around Qat, the main god in the oral mythology of Vanuatu. Of course, there are lots of lovely words, the use of which Scrabble rewards, such as frowzy and quixotic. But then the players who deploy them often feel the need to bore on about their erudition for days afterwards rather as an angler boasts about a landed fish.

All these delicious thoughts and arguments flicked through my mind. But inevitably, in the end, I wimped out. “I could have been a contender” but instead I lost graciously and endured once more the taunts of my children. “You lost again, Dad. You’re a journalist; you’re supposed to know lots of good words.”

“I’m thinking of one right now,” I muttered.

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