Playing Scrabble with Rachel Johnson

My Sunday started at the BBC, at New Broadcasting House, off Portland Place, London W1. At 8.40 am I found myself sitting on a stool in what felt like a broom cupboard gazing into a remotely-operated camera addressing some happy faceless folk who (via an earpiece) told me they were in Salford. BBC Breakfast runs on a Sunday from 6.00 am to 9.00 am (before Andrew Marr kicks in) and I was the “fun item” at the end of the show: there to mark the 70th birthday of Scrabble, the world’s most popular word game and (alongside Monopoly) the world’s most successful board game.

My two minutes down-the-line to Salford done (all I can remember is that the guy who interviewed me described himself as a NUMPTY and I told him that sounded like a great Scrabble word) I was whisked upstairs to the ‘Broadcasting House’ studio. This is the studio from which the BBC Radio 4 Today programme comes from Monday to Saturday, but on a Sunday Paddy O’Connell is in the chair for a rather different hour of news, views and whimsy. (Is that how you spell “whimsy”? Just checked. It is.) I’m a Paddy fan - and a friend, so whenever I’m asked onto the show, I go. Usually it’s to be a newspaper reviewer. Today, it was to play Scrabble with Rachel Johnson.

Rachel and I are friends - and, amazingly, after playing Scrabble live on network radio for an hour this morning we’re STILL friends. We played a fast(ish) game, getting through all our tiles in around 50 minutes. I got the better letters (by a margin) and the higher score (288 to Rachel’s 213), but Rachel definitely got the better words. Rightly, she was especially pleased with her TOYBOY. Her LECH, LOITERS and GIRTH were impressive, too. And she deserved a seasonal bonus for putting MANGER on the board. I played safe with WIFE and OINK. You can check out our final board on my Twitter timeline, @GylesB1, and on hers: @RachelSJohnson

Happily, Scrabble is a Brexit-free zone. Other proper nouns that were once capitaiised brand names (like Xerox and Hoover) are allowed in Scrabble these days because they’ve become verbs - as in ‘to xerox’ and ‘to hoover’ - but Brexit and ‘brexited’ haven’t yet made it to the Scrabble dictionary. The number of words allowed in Scrabble is increasing all the time. Alongside Prue Leith and Beth Rigby, reviewing the papers on Broadcasting House this morning was Captain Hannah Graf, the army’s highest-ranking transgender officer and she introduced me to a new - and newly-allowed - Scrabble word: ZE. It’s a pronoun used to refer a person whose gender is unknown or who is gender neutral.

I liked Hannah (who prefers to be called SHE) and I like ZE and I shall be using it regularly in Scrabble from now on. Other NEWBIE words in the Scrabble lexicon include: EW (an exclamation denoting disgust), ZEN (an adjective to describe feeling relaxed and chilled), YOWZA (an exclamation of approval) and PLUTO (a verb indicating ‘to lose importance’).


I love Scrabble. I come from a family of word-lovers and board game enthusiasts. In 1936, my father (a lawyer) bought one of the first sets of Monopoly sold in Britain. He met my mother (a teacher) playing Monopoly. After the Second World War, when Scrabble was introduced to Britain my parents bought one of the first sets to be sold here. In the early 1950s, almost from the age I could walk and talk, I was playing Scrabble. Much of my life-long love of words I owe to this extraordinary game.

When I was thirteen I was sent to a boarding school called Bedales in Hampshire. The founder of the school, J H Badley (1863-1965), lived in the school grounds and on Wednesday afternoons I was sent to play a game of Scrabble with him. He was in his late nineties then and played a mean game. Invariably he won. I told him he was cheating because he used words that were obsolete. He claimed they had been current when he had first learned them. He was a remarkable man. In the 1890s, he knew Oscar Wilde, whose eldest son, Cyril, was a pupil at Bedales. In the 1960s he was playing Scrabble with me. At 100, he believed Scrabble kept his mind alive.

By the time I left university, at the beginning of the 1970s, I had become a Scrabble obsessive. I would go so far as to say I had become a Scrabble evangelist: I wanted to spread the word of the world’s most wonderful word game. That’s how I came to found the National Scrabble Championships in 1971. I was writing a book about prison reform at the time. I had visited Bristol Prison and seen some inmates playing Scrabble. I knew that The Queen played Scrabble. I thought, ‘This is game enjoyed by Her Majesty and those detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure: it’s a game for everyone. We need a national competition to find the best player in the land.’

From that first national championship, the Scrabble movement grew and grew: competitions proliferated, standards rose, sales soared. We had Scrabble on TV, Scrabble clothes (I had several Scrabble jumpers), Travel Scrabble, computer Scrabble . . . You name it, we found a Scrabble angle to it. Yes, there have been and are other enjoyable word games (Bananagrams is another of my favourites), but none can rival Scrabble.

The Association of British Scrabble Players (of which I am the proud president) was formed in 1987 as an organisation to oversee UK tournament Scrabble and its associated rating system. There are now one-day or weekend tournaments somewhere in the British Isles nearly every week, organised by local clubs and individuals with results rated by the ABSP. Check out to find out more.

Champion Scrabble players have vast vocabularies. My friend Mark Nyman (a former World Champion at Scrabble as well as a former producer at Countdown) has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the words that are allowable in Scrabble. Many of them are pretty obscure. Many of them are abbreviations or foreign words that have crept into the Scrabble dictionary because they are so useful to the game. I knew that qi is allowed in Scrabble as an alternative spelling of chi, meaning the ‘life force’ in Chinese philosophy and medicine (and Rachel Johnson played it this very morning); I knew that zo is an approved Scrabble word because it’s one way of spelling the word for a type of Himalayan cattle; but I have only just discovered from Mark Nyman that za is permissible, as a colloquial abbreviation for ‘pizza’.

With a little help from my friend Mark, here is my A to Z of useful and unusual words to play at Scrabble:


volcanic lava


a Spanish porcelain tile


born again middle-aged biker


someone who boos


short for ‘casual’


quite stupid


very stupid




electronic intelligence


study of the foetus


a high rocky Scandinavian plateau


an Indian meat dish


to limp


a scar on a seed


a hairy New Zealand beetle


a moth


a gallery in a church


a South African word for ‘naked’


a Maori gift


indestructible human bone


a stupid person


reached full extent


million instructions per second


nitrogen oxide


yes ‘nonwords’ meaning ‘nonwords’ is allowed!


mountain nymphs


a sound to express irritation


a backside


a Chinese musical instrument


a keyboard


a small Canadian fishing boat


a sly one


a syrup liquid


a state of confusion








to bark


to make a dull thud


an Indian coin


abnormal dryness of bodily tissues (some words just don’t live up to their promise)


crude behaviour


a citrus fruit


a pimple



(they allow ‘zzz’ for a sleep in Scrabble, so they have to allow ‘zzzs’. I know, I know, and you’d have to use up blanks to make it happen, but it’s only a game)

If you’re into words and having fun with words, you might enjoy my book, Have You Eaten Grandma? If you can’t get it from your local bookshop, you can always try here:

Gyles Brandreth