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When Slurs Boost Scores

Acho Nwana, a New Yorker of Nigerian origin, used an ethnic slur the other day. The word was ofay . It’s black slang for white person--an obscure term, but derogatory all the same. According to one dictionary, it has roots in both militant politics and pig Latin. Ofay, you see, means “foe.”

Now, I didn’t know all this when Nwana acknowledged his use of the word, but I did suspect that ofay was a sneaky version of whitey or honky. For the record, I’m a white guy. But did Nwana’s word offend me? Not at all. I like to think of myself as an enlightened slice of Wonder Bread, so I considered the context and intent.

The context was Scrabble. The intent was points.

Fay is a very common play,” explains Nwana, a computer systems analyst for Reader’s Digest. “And ofay is a way to build on it.”

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Actually, to say that Nwana just plays Scrabble is a little like saying Pete Sampras just plays tennis or Don Juan just played around. He may not be the reigning world champ--that’s Mark Nyman of Leeds, England--or the world’s No. 1 ranked player--that’s Joe Edley of Coram, N.Y.--but Nwana competes on their level. This week, Nwana, Nyman and Edley are among the 300 players who’ve gathered at the Universal Hilton to compete for the $50,000 purse in the 1994 National Scrabble Championship.

My despondency over the baseball strike wasn’t the only reason I dropped by to watch the world’s greatest Scrabble players in action. Nor is the fact that I, like 30 million other Americans, happen to like Scrabble. What really interested me was the thought that I might witness a milestone of social history--the very last politically incorrect Scrabble championship in the United States of Sensitivity. I mean, America.

If the PC armies had their way, ofay would not be a legal play. Nor would any other ethnic slur. Another camp, meanwhile, has sought to ban profanity. Fearful of a public relations debacle, Hasbro Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble, has agreed to outlaw such words by deleting them from the next edition of the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary.

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The reaction of Scrabble purists has largely ranged from anger to dismay to bemusement. “Freedom Bans Censorship,” declared one player’s T-shirt. Nwana says he has argued with black and Jewish friends that words on a Scrabble board have no meaning beyond their score. “These words are part of history. Why deny it?” he says.

Mark Landsberg of Brentwood, who once scored the astonishing world record of 770 points in one tournament game, says it will be hard to please everybody.

“I have a receding hairline, so I would like bald out of the dictionary,” he cracks. “One of my favorite words is fubsy. It means chubby and somewhat squat. Now, its just a perfect word that describes a lot of people, but somebody won’t like it. There’s just word after word that can be construed as offensive.”

One of the few players who expressed a contrary opinion was Eugenio G. Ngan-Tian of Winnipeg, Canada. Ngan-Tian says that as a Christian, he favors banning several words from Scrabble.

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But does his religious faith keep him from playing such terms?

The player shrugged and smiled.

“Well, I’ve got to,” he said, “because I’m here for the money.”

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John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Assn. and an expert player himself, is in the uncomfortable role of one of Scrabble’s official censors. Because the National Scrabble Assn. is funded by both Hasbro and Scrabble club members, his job requires him to balance both sides.

So far, Williams says, there are 150 words on the hit list. Romanian interests have sought assurance that gyp will be banned, but Williams says he has yet to hear from the Welsh.

A few problematic words, it seems, may be saved by the assignment of new meanings. Poof , for example, was explained in current Scrabble dictionary as British slang for a gay man, but in the next edition it may be redefined as “a magician’s expression.” Williams says he has a special problem with the word tup . It means . . . well, sorry, you’ll have to look up that one yourself.

But perhaps the best solution is the creation of two sets of rules--one for leisure play, and one for tournaments. This week, Williams announced that “OSPD2"--as players refer to the second edition of the Official Scrabble Player’s Dictionary--will remain in force for tournament play. The sanitized OSPD3, however, will be “official” as far as the public is concerned. Williams is hopeful that the PC crowd will accept this compromise.

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“What we’re saying, in effect, is that we’re trained professionals. . . . We’re saying, ‘Kids--don’t try this at home.’ ”

So maybe I didn’t witness history after all. Well, gosh darn it.


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