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Scrabble players 'know' more words, but that doesn't mean they know what they mean, study finds

If you’re a frequent Scrabble player, you undoubtedly know, as actress Anne Hathaway noted on “The Daily Show” Thursday night, that qi is a word.

What you may not know, however, is what the word means.

That’s one of the findings of a fun little study that looked at how the experience of playing Scrabble shapes one aspect of cognition: visual word recognition.

The study, published in the August issue of the journal Memory and Cognition, shows  (apparently for the first time, according to the study’s authors) that adults can improve their visual word recognition skills more than was previously thought to be achievable — in this case, by playing Scrabble.

Spotting “phonies”
Specifically, the study found that competitive Scrabble players were able to recognize real words as opposed to “nonsense” words (“phonies”) 20 percent faster than non-Scrabble players.

"Scrabble players have honed their ability to recognize words such that they have actually changed the process of reading words," said Ian Hargreaves, a PhD candidate in psychology at Canada's University of Calgary and the study's lead researcher, in a prepared statement.

One way they’ve changed that process is by honing their “vertical fluency” word recognition skills. Scrabble players took a lot less time to recognize a word as real when it was presented vertically than did the non-Scrabble players, the study found.

That’s not surprising. After all, how often do non-Scrabble players get chances to practice their vertical fluency?

More interesting was the finding that competitive players of the game tend to use visual appearance rather than meaning to decide whether a string of letters is an actual word.

In other words, Scrabble players are unlikely to know — or perhaps even care — about the definitions of the words they’re playing.

Meaningless words
“Usually the meaning of the word would have a bigger impact on a person’s decision about whether or not it is a true word,” said Hargreaves. “This shows that one consequence of extensive Scrabble training is that Scrabble players don’t tend to emphasize what the words mean. Words are most importantly plays in a game.”

This finding is supported by other research that has shown that very few competitive Scrabble players focus on the meanings of words as they study (and try to partly memorize) the 180,000 words in the Official Tournament and Club Word List.

But, then, they don’t have to use the word in a sentence. They just have to get it to stretch to seven letters — or reach the triple-word score square.

Footnote: Qi, a word that I, like Hathaway, use often is Scrabble, is an alternative spelling of ch’i, the “vital energy that is held to animate the body internally and is of central importance in some Eastern systems of medical treatment and of exercise or self-defense,” according to Merriam Webster.

I had to look it up.

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