Saturday, May 14, 2011

Making the Most of Russian Peasants

For once, a moderately timely word-of-the-week post. This week, word nerd blogs weighed in on Scrabble’s addition of two words to its list of sanctioned playables: qin (a Chinese zither) and fiqh (an expansion of Sharia Islamic law). My first reaction? Fine, I guess, but the rulemakers are obviously just adding words that allow players to make better use of their “Q” tiles. And though that may well be the case, one commenter on the post over at Language Hat points out that both these words have, in fact, been used more and more frequently in English texts in the last twenty years. So there’s that, at least.

Qin and fiqh aside, the general discussion about obscure Scrabble words has been very good for my word-of-the-week posts here, and though I haven’t seen anyone yet mention umiaq as one of those high-scoring words that’s essentially useless outside the context of Scrabble, I have seen some good ones. So here, for the sake of creating contentious Scrabble games throughout the English-speaking word and consequently ruining countless friendships, is the strangest, highest-scoring word I could find:
muzjiks (moo-ZHEEK) — noun: Russian peasants.
I put it in the plural because that “S” at the end makes it a seven-letter word, meaning playing it could earn you the 50-point bonus for using all your tiles on a single turn. Discounting bonuses and double- and triple-scores, it nets its user 29 points. If used strategically, however, muzjiks could get the user as many as 128. And that, really, is about all I can say about muzjiks. Go ahead, Google it: Virtually all your hits result from this word’s status as Scrabble’s secret game-changer. And that is neat and all, but something about this makes me vaguely uncomfortable, sort of in the same way that I feel when I think about turning Native American caricatures into sports team mascots. But perhaps I am just overthinking this, right? I mean, Scrabble is just Scrabble, after all. You hear that, poor old little Russian man?

You may smell of hay and ash, and your simple, rough textiles may scratch the skin, and you may be unable to clean the beat juice from the cracks in your hands, but you are of worth to someone, somewhere: the Scrabble player! Oh, how he loves you! … No, he does not wish to see you or help you, per se, but he will use your existence to his advantage! Okay, now, do hobble along!

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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