In Scrabble, more than just a name

What do these people have in common? Bill Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Blair, Faith Hill, Laura Bush, Lance Armstrong, Nelson Mandela, and Sally Ride?

Give up? The first names of all these famous people have a lowercase counterpart. Some of them are common nouns: bill, faith, and lance.

Why is this important? For one thing, knowing it will give you an advantage the next time you play Scrabble.

Sure, the official rules say that no capitalized words are allowed, so you might think that eliminates names.

But many given names, including those of the people mentioned, are valid for play. Ruth means compassion, tony means stylish, laura is a type of monastery, a nelson is a wrestling hold, and sally means to rush out suddenly.

These definitions come from "The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary," which lists more than 500 first names that are also lowercase nouns, verbs, and adjectives. (Words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings are called homonyms.)

Who would have guessed that a celeste is a keyboard instrument or that a stella is a former US coin? Did you know that a pedro is a card game, a jordan is a container, and a chad is a scrap of paper? Also, a joseph is a woman's cloak, and a judas is a peephole.

What a coincidence!

Coincidence accounts for a number of names that are homonyms of common words. The name Eve has nothing to do with eve, the night before Christmas, or New Year's. The name Herb has nothing to do with herbs that you put in a salad. But if you ever draw the letters for barb, drew, gene, homer, marge, and will, you can play them because they have other meanings besides being names.

Names can coincide with fabrics (georgette, jean, serge, tammy, terry); letters of the alphabet (bee, dee, jay, kay); units of measurement (henry, jill, kelvin, morgan, newton); and old-fashioned dances (lindy, morris).

Some people's nicknames are descriptive adjectives, such as curly, misty, rocky, rusty, sunny, and tawny. Other names are homonyms of adjectives: curt, dusty, frank, rich, sandy, shelly, and woody.

Several American names are spelled the same as terms from other countries. A few examples include alma (Egyptian dancing girl), cory (former monetary unit of Guinea), louis (former gold coin of France), and sophy (ruler of Persia).

Scottish spellings give us ava (at all), bree (broth), ken and kent (forms of verb "to know"), kirk (church), mae (more), saul (soul), and vera (very).

Names from nature

There's a long tradition of naming children after qualities. Parents may choose nouns such as grace, hope, joy, mercy, and prudence in the hope that their daughters will possess these qualities.

Many names come from nature. Flower names are often given to baby girls – daisy, iris, poppy, rose, and violet. There are girls are named for other plants and trees: cicely, daphne, erica, fern, ginger, hazel, holly, laurel, olive, rosemary, and willow.

Some boys' names are the same as topographic features: brook, cliff, dale, dell, eddy, forest, garth, and glen.

Several names come from precious stones: amber, beryl, garnet, jade, opal, and ruby. And birds have inspired names, too: brent, mavis, merle, merlin, phoebe, raven, rhea, robin, and wren.

In a turnabout, words in some cases have come from real individuals and literary characters. We call a certain figure-skating jump an axel because a Norwegian skater named Axel Paulsen popularized it. Caesar, or emperor, comes from the Roman emperor Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's Romeo was one of a kind, but now romeo can refer to any love-struck male.

Many names are nouns that refer to types of people: beau (a boyfriend), belle (an attractive woman), billie (a comrade), buddy (a close friend), donna (an Italian lady), guy (a fellow), missy (a young girl), sheila (a young woman), sonny and tad (both mean a small boy), and victor (winner).

Winning strategies

Competitive Scrabble players memorize the list of two-letter words because they're useful for connecting a word to one already on the board. Six of the 97 two-letter words are easy to remember if you think of them as names: al, bo, ed, em, hi, and jo.

Verbs are good to play because, once on the board, most can be expanded with the endings -s, -ed, or -ing. When you think about it, many people have names that are spelled the same as common verbs: bob, chase, don, grant, harry, hector, jimmy, josh, mark, nick, pat, peg, rob, skip, sue, tucker, and wade.

The best way to win at Scrabble is to use all seven letters in a single play. Such a word is called a bingo, and it will earn you 50 bonus points.

Maybe you'll be fortunate enough to draw letters to spell these name words: christy (a skiing turn), derrick (a hoisting apparatus), jasmine (a climbing shrub), tiffany (a thin mesh fabric), or timothy (a European grass).

But even if you don't draw the letters for a bingo, simply knowing which names are valid will help you win – and surprise your friends and family. Think how much fun it will be when you play a word such as jake and your opponent challenges it, saying, "You can't use that. It's a name!"

You'll coolly answer, "Yes, but jake is also a slang word meaning 'all right.' "

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