Scrabble and Law French

scrabble.jpgUnder the rules of Scrabble, one cannot use non-English words. As it happens, I have married into a family that is intensely competitive about Scrabble and not above a captious reading of the rules. Naturally enough, the question arises of whether or not words in “law French” can be used in Scrabble.

Law French, of course, is the bastardized version of French that was used by the English law courts from about 1250 until about 1500. The important thing to realize about “law French” is that it is not the same thing as French, and it never was. Rather, David Franklin has observed that “law French” seems to have sounded much more like the sort of French spoken in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. To give you some feel for the language, here is an example from a 17th century case:

Richardson Chief Justice de Common Banc al assises de Salisbury in Summer 1631 fuit assault per prisoner la condemne pur felony, que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit justice, que narrowly mist, et pur ceo immediately fuit indictment drawn per Noy envers le prisoner et son dexter manus ampute et fix al gibbet, sur que luy mesme immediatement hange in presence de Court.

Not surprisingly, actual French people who have had the misfortune to become acquainted with “law French” refuse to accept it as their own language. For example, a French diplomat during the reign of Elizabeth I wrote that it “may be worthily compared to some old ruines of some faire building, where so many brambles and thorns are grown, that scarecely it appeareth that ever there had bin any house.”

Not surprisingly, this creates problem for Scrabble. Consider, for example, the words like trover, replevin, or detinue. It is not enough to claim that these are terms that are frequent in ordinary (to the extent that legalese is ordinary) conversation. I have tried that argument and lost. The response is that there are any number of Latin and other phrases that are used regularly by English speakers that are nevertheless verboten in Scrabble. For example, the word “verboten” is German. Likewise, the frequent use of, say, the phrase “vox populi” does not mean that either vox or populi can be used as Scrabble words. Detinue, my in-laws insist, is just a French word that lawyers use. Lawyers also use Latin words, they argue, and we are not giving those to you. My response is to argue that they aren’t actually French words at all. Indeed, some variations, such as “replevy” or “repleviable” were never words even in the old Norman French from which “law French” is descended.

To which they respond, “Fine. So lawyers have their own special pseudo-French language. We’re still not going to recognize it as English.”

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13 Responses

  1. Dave says:

    That’s very odd. So where do they draw the line? There are lots of French words that came into the English language more recently than trover and replevin: Oxford says trover came in the 16th century, “entrepreneur” and “entree” in the 19th, and I assume entree and entrepreneur are acceptable Scrabble words. I can see an argument for not allowing “fuit” or “dit” from your example above, since they’re no longer in English usage today. But trover and replevin are, so I don’t see the distinction between them and other words of more recent provenance.

  2. William Baude says:

    Also odd because I’m pretty sure “vox” is on the official scrabble word list for tournament and other play.

  3. Dave says:

    Just looked in my Scrabble dictionary: trover, replevin, and detinue are all there too.

  4. Nate Oman says:

    I clearly need to invest in the official scrabble dictionary.

  5. Nate, who did you say was “intensely competitive” at Scrabble? You seem to be giving your in-laws a run for their money! However, I side with them on the general principle that just because a word is not French, that does not make it English. Pig Latin is not Latin; that fact does not make it English.

  6. Andrea says:

    Haha, I was just coming here to say VOX and TROVER are acceptable. As fun as it is to argue, in Scrabble there’s really only one question: Is it in the OSPD? You need to grab a paperback OSPD 4th edition from the bookstore, stat!

    p.s. “Dit” is also good – like Morse code dits and dots.

  7. Bruce Boyden says:

    If “ursprache” is English, why not “verboten”?

  8. Sarah says:

    Ah, the irony of Scrabble fanatics out-rulesing a contracts professor.

    I’d accept “verboten” but none of the other words given here, but then, that’s probably why I don’t bother with Scrabble.

  9. Salil Mehra says:

    Is it just me (if I read this right), or does it seem to be going out of one’s way to amputate his right hand for gibbeting before hanging him?

    It has echoes of the punishment for treason, although I guess they didn’t disembowel him.

  10. Bored Frog says:

    Oh really. This is TOO dull.

    Clearly the person doesn’t actually own an OSPD.

    It’s rather simple to find all these words, or most of them, as the earlier posts indicate.

    http://www.hasbro.com/scrabble/pl/page.tools/dn/home.cfm

    Please don’t waste our time with your trivial mono-linguistic banter. You’re like one of my undergrads who asks me to translate a word, when the dictionary is on the shelf…. a la “what is the French word for….?” bah humbug

  11. pee on me says:

    pee on me. French or English?

  12. Hobbit says:

    English is a mega-aglutinive language. If you wish to be stodgy, you may suscribe to the philosophy of the Academie Francais and hasten the death of the language. If a constuct is used by an English speaker and understood by other English speakers, it is likely to be English. Nuff said.

    Khobkhun kha! Anne

  13. Hobbit says:

    English is a mega-aglutinive language. If you wish to be stodgy, you may suscribe to the philosophy of the Academie Francais and hasten the death of the language. If a constuct is used by an English speaker and understood by other English speakers, it is likely to be English. Nuff said.

    Khobkhun kha! Anne