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Why ‘Jew’ and ‘Goy’ Are Not Scrabble Words

A controversy that shook Scrabble to its tiles

Adam Chandler
February 21, 2013
Scrabble Ad via Poland.(BuzzFeed)
Scrabble Ad via Poland.(BuzzFeed)

BuzzFeed’s Copyranter advertising blog has a pretty amazing collection of Scrabble advertisements from around the world on their site today (like the one above from Poland), which prompted me to think deeply about the game, which I love and frequently dominate (because I’ve got a sick vocab skills and stuff).

Anyway, I (actually) lost a game over the summer in which I was in the midst of daring comeback and had a word ruled invalid by an opponent that would have won me the game. (Not that I’m bitter.) Nearing the end and down about 40 points, I *masterfully* fished out a bingo (a seven-letter rack-clearing word) with my last seven letters. In other words, I was about to accomplish the scrabble equivalent of a walk-off in baseball using the word “galilee” which I learned years ago is a valid scrabble word meaning a type of porch.

The problem was that I added the G in “Galilee” to the word “Oy” and, as I found out, “Goy” is not a valid scrabble word. I argued that goy is not an illegal proper noun, but slang for an adjective, like something that is goy like being from New Hampshire, ordering a Heineken at a bar, or rooting for the Kansas City Royals. I was challenged and lost. Like all things goy, the genesis of the debate had to do with Jews, or more specifically, the word Jew.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, the movement to remove the word “Jew” from the official Scrabble dictionary began.

Does the name Judith Grad ring a bell? If you play SCRABBLE, it should.

Judith Grad was an art gallery owner from Virginia and avid SCRABBLE player. One day, her opponent played JEW on the board. She challenged it because it was a proper noun, referring to those following Judaism, with roots of the ancient Hebrew people of Israel. But when consulting the dictionary:

JEW v JEWED, JEWING, JEWS to bargain with—an offensive term

Grad was outraged, especially since JEW was only one of the offensive and obscene words she found. She wrote to Merriam-Webster and Milton Bradley demanding the removal of words such as JEW…They politely declined her request.

Eventually, a campaign started by National Jewish Council on Women and joined up by the Anti-Defamation League led to changes in the third edition of the official SCRABBLE Dictionary. Jew and 166 other not-so-nice words were removed, rankling some Scrabble purists. Now it’s invalid.

All has been well in the world ever since, except for when I tried to play “goy” and was told I was out of line.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.