Wordnesia strikes when playing Scrabble

My friend Sandie and I were playing Scrabble, as we do every Tuesday, and I blanked on spelling annul. Two n’s or two l’s? Another time I juggled the u and e in fuel back and forth.

I spent my career in the word business and am a decent speller. How is it then that I could forget how to spell words I’ve written numerous times?

There’s a word for this phenomenon: wordnesia.

Wordnesia is a brain glitch that can happen when we’re writing or reading. Our brains freeze up over the spelling of common words (not words on frequently misspelled lists). We think, that can’t be right.

Slate columnist Matthew J. X. Malady consulted experts in language and the brain because he’d been experiencing wordnesia. He was told it’s nothing to worry about. It probably happens to everyone.

Researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint why it happens — they haven’t figured out how to order up these glitches in a controlled experiment — but they have hunches.

Baylor University neuroscientist Charles A. Weaver III told Malady that consciously monitoring a brain process that is usually automatic may trip you up. “The automatic parts hit a speed bump and go, ‘That can’t be right.’” Weaver compared it with breathing: what happens when you start to think about this process you constantly do on autopilot?

That might explain why wordnesia has been happening to me when I play Scrabble: I’m thinking instead of doing what’s usually automatic.

Linguist Kyle Mahowald, who was working on a PhD at MIT, told Malady that he more often experienced wordnesia when reading than writing. He suggested that when you’re thinking about the string of letters that make up a word, you may lose your ability to process the word as a whole unit.

Malady concluded his article reassuringly by saying these glitches tend not to last long for most of us and don’t “signify anything more than the fact that the human brain isn’t perfect.”



Sandie said that a friend of hers doesn’t want to play Scrabble with me because I worked as an editor. I’ve heard that before from other people, and I had to laugh.

As Sandie is too gracious to admit, she beats me most of the time. I also lost the only times I challenged my brother, a friend, and a neighbor with whom I played during our condo building’s game night.

So, 45 years working in the word business clearly didn’t make me a Scrabble threat.

I’ve been wondering why not.

In my family I’m known as unlucky at pinochle, our favorite game. Could I be unlucky at Scrabble, consistently picking lousy letters? I doubt it. You might be unlucky in the letters you pick in one game but surely not over scores of games.

My Scrabble strategy may be lacking. Scrabble isn’t just about knowing words but also about putting letters on squares where you’ll get the most points.

Googling “Scrabble tips” gave me plenty to work on.

USUALLY DO: 1) Look for the double- and triple-point squares to play on one if possible. 2) Play the 10-point Z and Q and 8-point J and  X on double- and triple-point squares, if possible. 3) Avoid leaving these high-point tiles in the rack toward the end of a game so as not to have them deducted. 4) Learn the approved two- and three-letter words. (Confession: Sandie and I use a cheat sheet for these.) 5) Save the blank tile and S for when you can score a hefty number of points.

NOT AS OFTEN AS I SHOULD: 1) Look for places to add prefixes, suffixes, or letters that create new words from words already on the board. 2) Try to make more than one word on a single play. 3) Try to build long words to keep your tile turnover high.

HARDLY EVER: 1) Play defensively. Sometimes I can’t resist putting down a word even though it leaves Sandie in position to score a triple. But sometimes I take advantage for the same reason. 2) Replace lousy letters, making sure not to keep too many duplicate letters, vowels, or consonants that will still make it hard to play.

NEVER: 1) Don’t always play the first word that comes to mind. I’m not a patient person, and I don’t try to think of another possibility, especially when coming up with the first word was a struggle. 2) Keep shuffling the tiles on the rack. 3) Think down the road. Sometimes making the most points on a play isn’t as important as what’s left on the rack. Playing the higher-score word might leave you with little to play next time — like all vowels or all consonants.

I could keep looking for tips, but these are already more than I’m likely to remember. Tournaments aren’t my goal, but it would be nice to score what I’ve heard good players get regularly: at least 300 points. They undoubtedly do it without a cheat sheet and a Scrabble dictionary, but first things first.



“At one point, you hear him say he doesn’t want to do anything, and then at another point he says he wants to a lot.”

Republican Representative Adam Kinzinger, on Trump’s inconsistency

Leave a comment