Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Boat for Navigating Scrabble Boards

Some words basically exist only for Scrabble players.
umiaq (OO-mee-ak) — noun: a large, open, paddle-propelled boat made of skins stretched over a wooden frame and used by the Inuit for transportation.
This is the word that Nate used against me in online Scrabble. He won. Now, umiaq is a valid word that some people might use all the time, but for the portion of the world that doesn’t think, read or speak about Eskimo-related matters, it’s essentially a Scrabble exclusive, especially because it can be spelled umaik, umiac, oomiac and oomiak (though weirdly not oomiaq, according to Wikipedia). Basically, as far as Scrabble-players are concerned, this word was designed to turn seemingly useless combinations of letter tiles into double- and triple-word scores.

For someone who likes weird words, online Scrabble makes for some good discoveries. In regular, live Scrabble, you can’t just keep trying random letter combinations hoping they turn out to be words because you’d end up making your opponents never want to play with you again. On a computer, however, the game checks for you, so guessing like Nate did can actually pay off. At least that’s how I now know about this obscure word — one of the very few ones loaned into English that have a “Q” and a “U” but in that order and not next to each other. Others: burqa (the head covering), qiviut (“the wool of the musk-ox,” which sounds like a sequel to Clan of the Cave Bear), suq (an Arab marketplace), taluq (an Indian estate).

Umiaq, which in Inutitut means “woman’s boat” shared a root with the word qajaq, “man’s boat,” which made it into English as the much more familiar word kayak. So for these, thank the Eskimos. (And Nate too, I guess, with his stupid ladyboats and his stupid Scrabble victory.)

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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