Scrabble by the book: Publishing Manager Gerry Breslin on branded dictionaries by Harper Collins

Gerry Breslin, Scrabble, Harper Collins
Gerry Breslin, welcome! You’re the Publishing Manager at Harper Collins Publishing. One of your many, many jobs is to oversee content in the Collins Scrabble Dictionary. So let’s start with the obvious questions: what IS a Scrabble dictionary; why is it necessary?!

We actually publish many Scrabble books to serve the needs of both competitive and casual Scrabble players… Anyone who needs to know whether a word is valid for Scrabble play, according to the official rules and approved word list.

Because not every word in a regular dictionary is playable in Scrabble?
Exactly. So the Scrabble bible – with every acceptable word listed – is called Official Scrabble Words. It’s used by the top players for study and in competitions and tournaments.

But that’s only in some parts of the world, isn’t it? Due to different companies holding different rights in different countries…
Yes. It’s complicated, but we work very closely with our brand partner, Mattel on branding, messaging, artwork, promotions and publishing plans. This particular word list is the only one officially approved for use in club and tournament play across the world, excluding the US and Canada. Casual players prefer a dictionary with more than a simple list of words; we publish four of those of varying size…

Four dictionaries; a bit more than simple word lists? How come?
There are two for adult players and two which are family-friendly, all of which include definitions.

Gerry Breslin, Scrabble, Harper Collins

That’s an excellent point, actually… Family friendly versions are – presumably – how you handle the thorny issue of words that could be seen as offensive?
Absolutely. Our editorial teams take great care to ensure we have products suited to different audiences. Some of the dictionaries cover adult tournament and club play – which would, of course, recognise words that you might not want to play in front of family and friends and children.

Just on that – in a more general context – do you see the role of a dictionary as prescriptive, descriptive or a bit of both?
Our dictionaries are descriptive; we use evidence from vast databases of language to decide which words, definitions, and senses to include based on current use and frequency of use.

And roughly how many words are in the Official Scrabble Words dictionary at the time of writing?
Official Scrabble Words has just over 279,000 permissible words.

Strewth! That’s a mind-boggling number!
The various other dictionaries cover fewer words as it’s unlikely the longer words would ever be played in non-competitive scenarios.

Gerry Breslin, Scrabble, Harper Collins
Right. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea of a competitive player learning 279,000 words! Granted, they don’t need the definitions, but even so… Let me ask you this, Gerry: How often does Collins update its dictionaries?

It varies across our extensive range of comprehensive and school dictionaries, but we keep all of them updated regularly. The Scrabble books are normally updated on a four-year cycle as players need to be aware of any new words being added… That happens only once in the cycle, and then the Scrabble word list is locked down until the next edition.

And what other books on Scrabble are you licensed to print at Collins?
We also publish hints-and-tips books like Scrabble Secrets, a Scrabble Puzzle Book and a new range of children’s titles including a Scrabble Junior Dictionary, Puzzle Book and various Scrabble Junior Activity Books for ages 5 to 9.

It’s quite a few, then? I’ll tell you what, we’ll put in a link to the range here… What’s your background, Gerry? How did you come to be doing what you’re doing?
I’m a languages graduate and moved into dictionary writing – lexicography –with HarperCollins. I’ve been involved in dictionary publishing for 30 years.

Gerry Breslin, Scrabble, Harper Collins
Wow! And when you’re not working on dictionaries, what do you do?

Scrabble is only one small area of my publishing list. I also publish astronomy books, puzzle books, language-learning audio courses and a wider reference list… So I’m kept fully occupied!

It sounds like it, Gerry! To wrap things up, then, what’s the one question I could’ve asked you today, but didn’t?
Do you play Scrabble?!

Ha! Of course! And what’s the answer?
I do – just not as well as I’d like. I need to study our books a bit more!

Well, there you go… You’re too busy writing them to read them! Thanks for doing this, Gerry; lovely to chat and I really appreciate you making the time.

Gerry Breslin, Scrabble, Harper Collins

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