Happy Belated Birthday, Alfred Butts

So who was Alfred Mosher Butts, born April 13, 1899?  He was originally an architect but when he found himself out of work during the Depression, he decided to try his hand at making board games.  He analyzed the different kinds of games available and decided that there was no good game for words and wordplay.  Eventually he came up with the idea for Scrabble.  The really innovative thing that he did was to analyze the New York Times to try to figure out which letters were used most often.  (This idea of solving a puzzle based on letter frequency originally appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” which Motts apparently read as a boy.)  You can see how important having the right number of different letters is – imagine if the number of letters in each set were completely random?  You might end up with a whole stack of Xs.

 

I was thinking about Butts, and his ground-breaking game that’s sold millions of copies and appeared in dozens of different languages (with, of course, different letter frequencies by language – you can’t play French scrabble with an English set!) and wondering how it connects to reading.  There are dozens of wordplay games, both traditional and electronic, that claim they can help your children to read.  Of course I have no evidence, but I suspect that it works the other way around – that people who are good with words and like them, end up enjoying word games and playing them more frequently.

 

Of course, the champions of Scrabble aren’t always – or even usually – great readers.  As Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Playing makes clear many of the best players are simply obsessive types who spend inordinate amounts of time memorizing word lists.  (Oddly, I’m not that fond of Scrabble, but I see the appeal of memorizing word lists.  I recently memorized all the world capitals for no reason except that I wanted to!  I know, I’m very strange.  Maybe some day, someone will write a book about me.)  (Probably not.)  One woman who attended the World Youth trials recently reported that the vast majority of contestants couldn’t speak English at all, but they knew an awful lot of words!  It reminds me of spelling bees.  Actually, the people in Word Freak did not really remind me of the kids who train for spelling bees, but I think a lot of that is they were older, so the incentives for doing memorizing words and the way they’re spelled are very different.

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