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The sky isn't falling: Scrabble rules aren't changing

An England-only version of the game will allow proper nouns, backward words, and other nonsense. But the original continues to prohibit proper nouns. You can relax.

Don't worry, everyone. The Scrabble you know and love isn't changing.

When I read this morning that starting this July, the Scrabble rules will change to allow the use of proper nouns, I had to check today's date to make sure it wasn't somehow still April Fools' Day.

But no, according to every calendar I could find, today is April 6, and so the story from the BBC seemed to have been the real deal. In that story, a Mattel spokesperson is quoted as saying the rule change, which is expected to be introduced in a new version of Scrabble to be released in July, will "add a new dimension" to the game and "introduce an element of popular culture into the game."

Although it has been widely reported that Scrabble will soon allow the use of proper nouns, it turns out that that is not true. In England, an entirely new version of the game will allow that plus other unusual play, but the original game will stay the same. Hasbro

Fantastic, I thought, as I found other versions of the story littering the Web everywhere, and went looking around the Web for similar news like, for example, the NBA will soon allow players to run up the court without dribbling, the Senate will allow cloture with 45 votes, the Federal Aviation Administration is now happy for you to breathe cigarette smoke into your cell phone in the bathroom on a plane and bacon will now be the official food of Israel.

Perhaps I overreacted, but to me, such a modification of the Scrabble rules would be tantamount to putting out a whole new game. The inability to use proper nouns is part of the fabric of the game. It's one of the first thing every child learns when their mom or dad says, "No, honey, you can't use your name in Scrabble." And why? Because the Scrabble gods said so, that's why.

Well, lest you worry that, in fact, the sky is falling, the good news is that it's not. According to John Williams, the executive director of the American Scrabble Association, the news is just not true. Williams said in a phone interview that what's happened is that Mattel, which owns the rights to Scrabble in England, is going to release a completely new version of the game there called Scrabble Trickster, in which anything goes, including the use of proper nouns, spelling words backwards, stealing letters, and so on.

It's nothing more than a PR ploy by Mattel, Williams suggested.

Mattel has since confirmed that the new version will in fact be called Scrabble Trickster.

Hasbro, which owns the rights to Scrabble in the United States and Canada, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But, Williams assured me--and through me, 50 million American and Canadian Scrabble players--"the rules to Scrabble that we all know and love are not changing, certainly not in the U.S. and Canada."

Over on Twitter, Stefan Fatsis, the author of the terrific book about competitive Scrabble, "Word Freak," had just this to say about the uproar this morning: " No, Scrabble rules are not changing to allow proper nouns. Bad reporting plus corporate flackery=chaos."

So why were so many people foaming at the mouth at this news this morning?

Like Twitter user cstcroix, who scribbled, "Scrabble to allow proper nouns--Another sign of the apocalypse." Or @GiggleFactory [Love that Twitter handle, by the way], who wrote, "THIS IS SOOOOOOOOOOOOO STUPID! RT: @Slate: Scandalous! Scrabble official rules will now permit proper nouns."

Well, said Williams, "People are just so passionate about Scrabble, unlike [with] any other game. There's so many memories attached to it. It's part of the fabric of American culture."

Williams recalled the insanity that surrounded a 1994 re-release of the official Scrabble dictionary that had removed 200 words that were considered offensive. "It was just a huge, huge deal." The same for the controversy surrounding Scrabulous a couple years ago. And, he added, "you should see what happens when we have a mistake in the Scrabblegrams that we publish in the newspaper. People are just incensed."

And like most Scrabble purists will be when they find out that the news about the rule change isn't true, Williams is relieved to know that proper nouns will still be verboten. "I personally am," he said. "I don't think we need proper nouns. [And anyway] people would remember that many names are already good, like rose, pat, iris and john."