Scrabble, the words-and-letters board game that had taken America by storm, became an international success as it went on sale in the UK.
By Rhys Lewis
Hit board game Scrabble went on sale in the UK on this day in 1955, but far from being an overnight success, the US words-and-letters game had taken 17 years from its invention to cross the Atlantic.
Unemployed New York architect Alfred Butts invented the game in 1938 having set out to create a game that combined skill and chance with the fad for anagrams and crossword puzzles.
The first sets of the game he called Criss-Crosswords had only letters and no board. Only when Butts (below, in 1974) gave up trying to find a distributor and sold the rights to entrepreneur James Brunot did the new owner create a board, add the bonus squares and trademark the game.
In 1948 Brunot came up with the name ‘Scrabble’, meaning ‘to grope frantically’, and, in a converted school house on Connecticut, he and his wife produced the first 2,400 sets, but lost $450 in the process due to poor sales.
But word of the word game got round and a big order from Macy’s secured Scrabble’s future – supposedly after the company president played it on holiday and couldn’t find a copy in his own department stores.
By 1952 Brunot had to license a nationwide game maker to market and distribute the game, and it was such a success in the US that in 1954 JW Spear acquired the overseas distribution rights, with UK and Australia players the first outside North America to pit their word knowledge against friends and family.
Some 150 million sets have been sold worldwide since, and 53% of UK homes are said to own a Scrabble set.
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Scrabble – Did you know?
o As well as Criss-Crosswords, Alfred Butts' early names for the game were Lexiko and, bizarrely, It.
o Butts decided on the various letter values by analysing how many times each letter appeared on the front page of the New York Times.
o The values have remained ever since, despite frequent calls – backed up by computer analysis – to make the values reflect modern usage.
o The original carved wooden tiles were changed to flat plastic tiles during the 1950s so that players couldn’t feel for high-scoring letters when they drew new tiles from the bag.
o Scrabble is now available in 41 different languages including Esperanto, Latin and Basque. Each one has its own tile distribution and points system. In Polish, for instance, Z is worth just one point, while the Malaysian version has 19 ‘A’ tiles - almost a fifth of the 100-tile set.
o There are Scrabble World Championships in English, French and Spanish.
o QI is the most commonly played word in Tournament Scrabble. It’s pronounced ‘chee’ and means ‘life force’ or ‘energy’ in Mandarin.
o In 1998 the Army and the Navy played a game of Scrabble on the Wembley Stadium pitch to mark the game’s 50th anniversary. The board (pictured above) measured 900 square metres and each two-metre-square tile had to be put in place by two people. For the record, the Navy won.
o A Welsh edition, launched in 2005, contains individual tiles for the language’s characteristic LL, TH and DD sounds. There is no Z or Q in Welsh, so two other combinations, NG and RH, constitute the game’s 10-point tiles.
o In 2008, current owners Hasbro tinkered with the idea of adding apostrophes and hyphens to the game to permit contractions such WON’T, DOESN’T and SHOULD’VE, as well as possessives such as HOUSE’S. The idea was eventually rejected.
o Scrabble had a role in the creation of another best-selling board game. It was over a game of Scrabble in 1979 that Chris Haney and Scott Abbott devised question-and-answer game Trivial Pursuit.