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Sweet victory

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture





What do these words have in common?

Nothing whatever that I know of. Except that they are English words and mean something to me.

The first is simple enough, and represents victory over the longtime Scrabble champion of our household. Daughter Mary and I have been Scrabble antagonists virtually since she could say the alphabet. And about junior high (an early term for middle school), she has won nearly every game we’ve ever played.

She starts strong and holds on doggedly to the very end, which is usually after midnight. A night person, she isn’t ready to start until I’m too tired to play well.

 “Good night, honey, I’m going – ”

Clatter, slap! The unmistakable sound of the Scrabble box hitting the table.

“C’mon, Mom. We haven’t played Scrabble since you’ve been here.”

Actually, it’s pretty easy to see why she always wins. She knows my brain is mushy from too much sightseeing, too much wine, or too much trying to translate the local newspaper.

I don’t resist long. We start the game, I’m soon lagging hopelessly behind, and in about 45 minutes, I’m asleep in my chair, while Mary is trying every combination of letters that will bridge a couple of double or triple word scores.

Given my alleged writing skills, one would think I’d annihilate someone who has rarely spoken her native tongue in nearly 30 years in Germany. One would be wrong.

I spot “cute” or amusing words and can’t resist playing them, even when they are low-scorers. She sees on her rack huge-scoring combinations I’d never imagine.
On our visit to Germany several years ago, ah, sweet justice! I won not only one game, I won two consecutively. And I was ahead in a third match we didn’t have time to finish.

In the first, I cleared all seven letters off my rack on two plays, earning a bonus of 50 points each time. Not even Mary could overcome a lead like that.(Oddly enough, I made a note of only one of the words: INQUIRIES.)

Historic footnote: Scrabble was born during the Depression when an out-of-work architect with the unfortunate name of Alfred Butts studied letter frequencies on the front page of The New York Times. He devised what became known as Scrabble when it was trademarked in 1948.

I would love to have had the letters to play HOMOLOGATED, but I’d never heard the word until Dave asked me what it meant one night as we were reading in bed. I had to see it in context before I either made up a definition or admitted I didn’t know. This time, I simply didn’t know. I hate that!

Didn’t think about it again until the same word appeared in the Colin Powell autobiography I’ve been reading for months. The context was something like “Pentagon-homologated.” Huh?

I came across the word AUTODIDACTIC in a chess column by Shelby Lyman. The writer refers to chess as an outstanding learning activity, appealing to children because it’s a highly individualized game, not a lesson.

“Chess is also autodidactic,” Lyman writes. “It’s more fun to learn when learning is discovery and self-discovery, when you are not being asked questions that are of little I interest to you….”

And what does it mean to me, an even less ept chess player than Scrabble? I like the way it feels in the mouth. It bounces on the tongue. Autodidactic!


Dave came across a word today that he thought I wouldn’t know. Oh, he of little faith.

“I don’t want to try pronouncing it,” he said, “I’ll spell it.” He got to T-I-N-T-I-N-N… when I joined him to finish it: A-B-U-L-A-T-I-O-N – tintinnabulation.

Its best-known use is in “The Bells,” a poem by his favorite, Edgar Allen Poe, but it didn’t ring a bell for him. Listen to yourself reading this stanza aloud, and enjoy the rhythm.

“Keeping time, time, time/In a sort of Runic rhyme,/To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells/From the bells, bells, bells, bells,/Bells, bells, bells.”

Definitions, working backward:

Tintinnabulation – The sound of a ringing or tinkling as of bells.

Runic, as long as we’re here – Consisting of runes, magic words or charms.

Autodidactic – Having to do with being self-taught.

Homologated – Approved, sanctioned.

Guess what I got for Christmas that year. The two-volume 2002 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, every current word that’s been in the language since 1700. And the new Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

Guess what you’re going to hear a lot more about….

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