I’ve recently been listening to an excellent podcast on language from Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo Slate, called Lexicon Valley. You may remember that back in March I pointed out that my name is supervocalic, i. e. it contains each vowel exactly once; in an early episode they ask a similar question, to find celebrities (Charlie Daniels is one example) who have the same vowels in both names.
In March they did an episode about Scrabble, a game which I’ve taken a renewed interest in because my girlfriend is much better at it than I am. But a large part of this is simply that she knows more obscure words than I do. Stefan Fatsis is the author of the book Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players and a competitive Scrabble player himself, and was interviewed for the Scrabble episode of Lexicon Valley. Apparently the reliance of Scrabble on obscure words is seen as something of a problem in competitive Scrabble as well. North American players use a different word list than the rest of the world, and the North American list is shorter; some players don’t want to move to the longer list because they feel it contains too many obscure words.
One idea that occurs to me — although I don’t know how one would implement this — would be to modify the score that a word receives with some multiplier, a function of the frequency with which the word is used. (I wouldn’t use the frequency of the word itself; then Scrabble would reduce to seeing who can play THE the most.) But this would make scoring much harder — you’d have to pause to use lookup tables after every word. Computers, however, can handle this. More importantly it would make scoring much less transparent. This seems especially a flaw in the end of the game; with opponents that I’m well-matched with games can come down to the final few moves and I know exactly how many points my words will receive.
(And in case you’re wondering: if I had to name a baby I would lean towards first names that contain the vowels A, E, and I exactly once each, and no O or U.)