On National Scrabble Day, we celebrate the perseverance of one Alfred Butts

Published April 13, 2023

A Scrabble board features mostly boring words such as "cloy," "deem," and "lingo"

These players aren't trying hard enough to use funny words. (credit below)

In the early 1930s, the incredibly named Alfred Mosher Butts was a bored, out-of-work architect who decided that he’d use his endless amounts of free time to study the different kinds of board games. Butts (WE KNOW) wrote a lengthy analysis of these games, separating them into three categories: “men on a board”-style games, numbers games that used cards or dice, and letter games. 

He was most interested in the latter category — and he was also the most disappointed by it, sighing that the existing letter games “produced nothing better but anagrams.” According to the Wall Street Journal, Butts read an Edgar Allan Poe short story that rearranged the alphabet based on how frequently each letter was used in words and stuff, and that gave him an idea. 

“It follows that word games should be played not with a jumble of letters but with a mixture so proportioned that the individual letters will occur in the same frequency as they do in normal word formation,” Butts wrote in his paper, shortly before he started work on his own game that used 100 different letter tiles. He named it Lexiko and… it wasn’t anywhere close to being a success. He reworked it a bit, decided to call it Criss-Cross Words and… still nothing. 

Butts and his word tiles were eventually saved by a New York social worker named James Brunot, who further adapted the game, literally pieced each board together in his home, and agreed to pay Butts royalties for each board sold. Brunot also gave it another name: Scrabble. (Butts later said that “one-third [of my royalties] went to taxes, I gave one-third away, and the other third enabled me to have an enjoyable life.”) 

Counting his Scrabble cash seemed to keep Butts busy until the mid-1980s, when he dreamed up another game that he called, uh, Alfred’s Other Game. It was a weird four-player word game, and it didn’t catch on. Fortunately for Butts — and for word nerds like us — Alfred’s First-ish Game did. 

A version of this story appeared on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Sometimes we eat cold pizza for breakfast too.

Featured image: Ftaaffe, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

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