20 Words You Should Learn if You Play Scrabble

By: John Kelly  | 
Scrabble World Championship final match winning board on display at Westfield White City, London
Learning just a few useful words might give you the edge over your friends in Scrabble. It still might be a minute before you're dusting your opponents with words like these from the 2018 Scrabble World Championship though. Jonathan Brady/PA Images via Getty Images

You can say you don't care if you win or lose at Scrabble, but you may very well be in the minority. Even former President Barack Obama, one of United States' most high-profile Scrabble enthusiasts, isn't above boasting about his wins. "It's his favorite game to play," then-White House communications director Robert Gibbs said in a 2008 interview with The Independent.

And Obama's not the only famous Scrabble devotee. Former president Richard Nixon was an avid player. So is actor Daniel Radcliffe, who once had a spirited real-life battle with Harry Potter's nemesis Draco Malfoy (aka Tom Felton). Late author Vladimir Nabokov, famous for his novel "Lolita," was a skilled player. Even Queen Elizabeth II is reported to enjoy a royal game of Scrabble [source: McSmith].


Not bad for a pastime invented during the Great Depression. In 1931, out-of-work architect Alfred Mosher Butts came up with a game that he first called Lexiko, then Criss Cross Words. He spent several years tinkering before settling on the rules, now familiar to all Scrabble players: You draw seven letters and try to make words on a board with a 15-by-15 grid. Each letter scores specific points that roughly go along with how hard it is to fit the letter into a word. If an opponent challenges an unusual word, it had better be in the dictionary, or you'll have to remove it and lose a turn.

Butts' game didn't meet with much success initially. But in the 1940s, another game maven, James Brunot, took over. He renamed the game Scrabble and by 1952, it had become a sensation [source: Fatsis].

Scrabble aficionados, like the ones we just mentioned, may memorize long lists of unusual words to win their bragging rights. But casual players can improve their games by learning just a handful of useful entries. You can impress — and even beat — your friends by blitzing them with high-scoring words, or by sneaking in common but strategic words that get rid of unwanted letters. Remember to make use of the double and triple squares to leverage your score on almost any word. And always look for what players call a "bingo," the 50 extra points you get for using all your tiles on one play.

Now let's look at 20 words that every Scrabble player should know.

20: Za

Challenge! That might be your first instinct, thinking there's no way this is a word. But "za" is now accepted as slang for pizza and appears in the NASPA Word List 2020. NASPA stands for North American Scrabble Players Association, and it is the final authority for acceptable words in the U.S. and Canada.

Our two-letter word may not be much to look at, but "za" packs a big punch: With 10 points for the "z," it'll earn you least 11 total. Hit a triple letter square and you can score 31. Add pepperoni and you've got a meal.


19: Muzjiks

Muzjiks are Russian peasants — or so they were called under the tzar (another handy word to know). In Scrabble, "muzjiks" gives you the highest possible opening play. Put the "z" on the double letter square for an initial score of 39. All opening plays score a double word — that makes 78. Add 50 for a bingo, the use of all seven letters in your rack. With a total of 128, you're off to a terrific start.


18: Aerie

An aerie is an eagle's nest located on a cliff or some other high location. In Scrabble, the word is a handy way to get rid of four vowels in one fell swoop. You only score five points, but it beats turning your tiles in for new ones and losing a turn in the process.


17: Caziques

When Spanish explorers first reached the West Indies, they found tribes of Indians who described their chiefs using this word. The conquistadors applied the word, which can also be spelled "caciques," to all native chiefs.

It also refers to a tropical bird similar to an oriole. In a game in England in 1982, Dr. Karl Khoshnaw set the record for the highest single word score in Scrabble competition. He played "caziques" across two triple word squares for a total score of 392.


16: Faqir

"Q" is the best of letters and the worst of letters. It gives you 10 points when you use it, but drags down your score if you end the game holding it. Thinking of "q" words is always a challenge. That's why it's a good idea to keep "faqir" in mind.

Faqirs were originally monks in the Sufi sect of Islam, who took vows of poverty. (The word came from the Arabic for "poor man.") The term is now used to refer to any Muslim or Hindu holy man. On the Scrabble board, "faqir" earns you a generous 17 points. And it's an ideal way to use a "q" if you don't have its usual partner, the letter "u."


15: Jousted

Once upon a time, when knights jousted, they had great fun trying to knock each other off their horses with lances. In 2006, two journeyman Scrabble buffs jousted with each other in a game in Lexington, Massachusetts, that involved record high scores.

The loser, Wayne Yorra, opened with a bingo using the word "jousted." He hit the double letter square with the "j" for an initial score of 23. Doubled, it was 46, plus 50 points for using all his tiles, and Yorra was off to a galloping start with a score of 96.


14: Quixotry

In that same record-setting 2006 game we mentioned previously, which took place in a church basement, winner Michael Cresta stunned Scrabble fans with the permitted word "quixotry." It means a visionary scheme, action or thought and is derived from the fictional character Don Quixote, whose visions led him to joust with windmills.

Cresta, a carpenter by trade, stretched the word between two triple word squares. With a double letter square under the "x," he initially scored 35. Two triples multiplies that by nine for 315. Add 50 for the bingo, and Cresta ended with a score of 365, a North American record for a single word. The two men went on to set two more records: Cresta's final score of 830 was the most points in a game by one player. Combined with Yorra's 490, the players set a record for most total points at 1,320.


13: Jukebox

Long before the iPod playlist, there was the coin-operated phonograph. Jukeboxes brought popular music to the world for decades and grew into colorful, bubbling neon shrines to pop and rock. The word comes from a Gullah term meaning wicked; it originally referred to a juke house, a brothel.

In Scrabble, you need to keep in mind that high-scoring words don't have to be obscure. This common word gives you at least 27 points. As an opening bingo, it's worth a solid 85, which is music to any player's ears.


12: Zax

This word evolved from "sax," a single-edge sword of ancient Scandinavia, and came to describe a tool for cutting and punching nail holes in roofing slates. It also refers to the craftsman who uses the tool. It gives the highest possible Scrabble score for a three-letter word: 19. Hit a double or triple letter square, and you'll do even better. The bonus: You dump two problematic letters at once.


11: Queue

George Washington had one. So does your printer. "Queue" can refer to either a braid of hair hanging down a person's back, or a line of people, print jobs or anything else. It comes from the Latin word cauda, which means tail.

In Scrabble, "queue" earns a minimum score of 14, nothing to sneer at. Even better, it clears your rack of a bunch of awkward vowels. And, of course, you lose the "q," a letter you don't want to be saddled with at the game's end.

10: Chutzpah

The writer Leo Rosten said chutzpah was when a man murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court as an orphan. The word reaches us from Hebrew through Yiddish. It can mean either extreme self-confidence or shameless impudence.

You'll score at least 27 points with chutzpah anywhere on the board. Fit it into either the upper right or lower right corner going across, and you'll do better, much better. That puts the "z" on the double letter square, giving you an initial 37. It also lets you hit two triple word squares, which multiplies your score by nine. Add 50 for a bingo. You'll wind up with a phenomenal 383 points and a major boost to your self-confidence.

9: Xi

Xi is the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet, falling between nu and omicron. In English, it's pronounced something like "sigh."

You may let out a sigh of relief when you make this play in Scrabble, because it clears your rack of the "x," which will subtract eight points from your score if you're stuck with it in the final tally. So keep "xi" in mind. It's rare that you can't find a place to squeeze this little word in, dispose of the "x" and pick up nine points in the process.

8: Syzygy

There's no way to pronounce this word, which describes an alignment of three heavenly bodies, without sounding like you've had too much to drink. But it's a cool and impressive word to keep in mind for Scrabble.

To begin with, you'll score at least 21 points for "syzygy." Of course, you'll need to use a blank, because there are only two "y" tiles in Scrabble. But you can amp up your score if you bring the word into alignment with one of the corners. Hit the double letter square with the "z" and end on a triple word square, and you'll have a total of 93. A great move when you're short of vowels.

7: Wagyu

This Japanese breed of cattle provides gourmets with Kobe beef, which can sell for $200 a pound and up. In 2011, "wagyu" was added to the Scrabble word list for play outside the U.S. and Canada. That fact points out a great divide in the Scrabble world. In North America, the Scrabble brand is controlled by Hasbro, which rules on the words that are permissible in tournaments. In the rest of the world, Scrabble is marketed and overseen by Mattel. Different official word lists apply. For casual games, players can choose an ordinary dictionary as the last word in what words can be used.

With the combination AYWUG on your rack, you might be left scratching your head. But remember "wagyu," and you'll score at least 12 points initially, with a chance for more with double letter squares — if you live outside North America.

6: Yo

"Yo, my man!" This exclamation is used to get somebody's attention. Sounds contemporary, but surprisingly, "yo" goes back to the Late Middle English of 1400. Soldiers in World War II used it to mean "present" in a roll call. Sylvester Stallone, in the Rocky movies, used it a lot, too. "Yo, Adrian!"

In Scrabble, it's a clever way to dump a pesky "y." It may only score you five points, but that can make a difference in a tight game.

5: Zymurgy

This is the branch of chemistry that deals with fermentation, as in winemaking or the brewing of beer. You might refer to your next kegger as an experiment in zymurgy.

It's a high-octane word for Scrabble as well. For an opening bingo, put the "z" on the double letter square and you'll brew up a score of 120. It can be a terrific way to score points when you're short on vowels.

4: Bezique

Bezique was Winston Churchill's favorite card game. It's a high-scoring, trick-taking and melding contest that employs a deck of 64 cards. Its more popular offspring is pinochle.

In Scrabble, the word bezique can be a winner. You'll score a minimum of 27 points when you play it anywhere on the board. But use it as an opening bingo with the "q" on a double letter square and you'll score 124, one of the highest possible openings.

3: Flapjack

In America, this is another word for pancake. Cowboys washed them down with bad coffee for breakfast. But in Britain, a flapjack is a chewy sweet made from oats.

You might overlook flapjack as a mundane word, but it can be a high Scrabble scorer. Hit a double letter square with the "j" and you'll score 34. Stretch it between two triple word squares and you'll end up with a sweet 356.

2: Qanat

A qanat is a tunnel used in arid regions for irrigation. It was invented in Iran, then called Persia, about 2,500 years ago and is still used today. It taps into underground water and uses the slope of the land to bring that water to where it's needed without pumping.

A rack containing these letters can be maddening. Two "a's" and no "u" to go with the "q." But don't despair. Qanat clears most of your letters and rids you of "q," scoring you at least 14 points in the process.

1: Aa

Solidified lava comes in two forms. Aa is rough like cinders. Pahoehoe, formed from hotter lava, is smooth. Both words are Hawaiian.

The game is winding down. This could be your last play. You can fit the word in almost anywhere there's another "a." It's only worth two points, but if they allow you to edge out your opponent, you'll be bragging about those two points for a while.

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  • Bialik, Carl. "Price Drop: Stocks, Homes, Now Triple-Word Scores." Wall Street Journal. March 18, 2009. (April 7, 2022) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123731266862258869.html
  • Burkeman, Oliver."Spell bound." The Guardian. June 27, 2008. (April 7, 2022) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/jun/28/healthandwellbeing.familyandrelationships
  • Donahue, Daniel. "Important Scrabble News: Two New Q (Without U) Words." Wired. May 9, 2011. (April 7, 2022) http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2011/05/important-scrabble-news-two-new-q-without-u-words/
  • McSmith, Andy. "The sublime joy of Scrabble." The Independent. Dec. 15, 2008. (April 7, 2022) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/the-sublime-joy-of-scrabble-1067061.html
  • Fatsis, Stefan. "How a Massachusetts carpenter got the highest Scrabble score ever." Slate.com, Oct. 26, 2006. (April 7, 2022) http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/gaming/2006/10/830.single.html
  • Fatsis, Stefan. "Present at the Creation: Scrabble." Morning Edition, NPR.org. Aug. 19, 2002. (April 7, 2022) https://www.npr.org/2002/08/19/1148572/scrabble
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  • Swenson, Christopher. "Best Words in Scrabble." The Science of Board Games. (Feb. 9, 2012) http://www.scienceofboardgames.com/2007/12/best-words-in-scrabble/
  • The Telegraph. "Scrabble: 60 facts for its 60th birthday." telegraph.co.uk. December 15, 2008. (Feb. 9, 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/3776732/Scrabble-60-facts-for-its-60th-birthday.html