My friend—let’s call him Bob—was playing to win. The game: Words With Friends. His opponent: his wife. His weapon: the alphabet. He saw his chance. He made his play: smeat.
Smeat? Bob’s wife objected immediately. Smite, smote, smear, she told him, but definitely not smeat. How did he get through medical school with that vocabulary? she asked. Though smeat was a made-up canned meat brand in the movie “Waterworld,” according to the Urban Dictionary, you will not find it in a traditional dictionary. It’s not a word. But it does kind of sound like one.
In the summer, many of us finally have the time to tackle friends and family in word games like Scrabble or Words With Friends. For the most part, we are stand-up linguistic citizens. We play words we know, or can at least use in a sentence. But when your opponent leaves a choice spot wide open and you have just the letters to spell verting, the temptation toward verbal fudging is often just too powerful to resist.
There’s a long history in English of inventing new words, or neologisms. Sometimes a new thing or action demands new vocabulary; sometimes it’s accidental (think refudiate); other times it’s a literary device. Neologizer extraordinaire Lewis Carroll, famously, gave us mimsy, slithy, vorpal, and other inventions.
But for those of us outside the rabbit hole, playing real-sounding words in games like Scrabble might be our best outlet for neologizing—and, with points (and pride) on the line, the more plausible the words, the better. These phonies, as serious Scrabble-heads call them, offer pretty good reflections of English morphology—which might be why, even as we squabble over them, they often also seem delightful and maybe even worth keeping.
For the most part, words sound real when they obey linguistic rules. Ksrast , for example, seems unlikely, because “ksr” is not a sound sequence found in English words. But take some other fake words that have been played in games I know of: datish, gorn, and flavorite. These verbal impostors are built like English words; in fact, the more points we’ve got at stake, the more fake words are likely to sound real. And since we can’t possibly know all words in the language, we reasonably think that if we tinker with plausible sounds, we’ll get something that just might be kosher.
Datish is, I will admit, my own play. Not my proudest moment, but there was a triple word score at stake. With a combination of the noun date and the boundary-blurring suffix -ish, I’m wondering how we’ve gotten by without it for so long. Datish: of ambiguous romantic intent.
Then there’s gorn, played by a friend in a genuine moment of confusion between English and the world of “Star Trek.” Gorn, as I learned, are a species Captain Kirk battles. But I would have believed it’s a wholesome breakfast food—a solid old Anglo-Saxon cross between grain and corn.
Flavorite was not in the Words With Friends dictionary, but it has stuck in my mind ever since a friend tried to play it. Flavorite is “favorite flavor”: a classic portmanteau, or word blend, and much easier on the tongue in its blended form. Why do we need those extra syllables? Vanilla is my flavorite. There. Done.
Vax (with the high-scoring V and X) failed the word-integrity test, but it would be a useful shortcut to vaccine. (Those who militate against childhood vaccines are pejoratively known as “anti-vaxxers.”) Scos, a fake conjunction contraction, failed, too, but how much easier it is to say than “it is because.” Then I have a friend who tries re-, -ing, -ed, on any word. Kiboshing and kiboshed both work. But rekibosh doesn’t. Pity.
Even “the show about nothing,” “Seinfeld,” satirized the phonying (why not?) of Scrabble words. In an episode called “The Stakeout,” Jerry’s mom plays the word quone. Jerry challenges her, while Kramer jumps to her defense. “We need a medical dictionary!” he says. “If a patient gets difficult, you quone him.”
In most online versions of these games, a message pops up on the screens telling us nicely that our word doesn’t exist, encouraging lots of wild guesses. In the original board game, however, you’re taking a gamble. You can get away with fake words, if your opponent doesn’t challenge their validity. If your word is successfully challenged, however, according to the National Scrabble Association’s official tournament rules, you lose your turn and get no points; if the word is valid, the challenger loses a turn. In competitive Scrabble, phonies can be played strategically, according to Stefan Fatsis, author of “Word Freak.” But in tournaments you can’t get away with phonying with abandon the way you can online, or with your mom.
Though the competition of games heightens the stakes, making up words comes naturally to us, says linguist Suzanne Kemmer of Rice University. English in particular is a linguistic melting pot. “We have a funny history where people came over in waves, and we’ve gotten used to taking words from other languages,” she said. That openness has made us creative about breaking down words and reassembling their parts.
Perhaps it’s time to create a new game where the rules are the exact opposite. Call it Alice’s Wordland. Any word would be fair game—except the ones that can be found in a dictionary.
Ada Brunstein is a senior acquisitions editor for an academic press and a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.