More than 150 million Scrabble games have been sold since Alfred Butts invented it in 1938. Every hour, approximately 30,000 people start a game, which you can buy in around 30 different languages. It has inspired countless fights about spelling and proper nouns, and has taught people how hard it is to use the letter q in a word if you lack access to a u as well.
But none of this would have happened had Butts not been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
In Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug,” published in 1843, a character solves a cipher that is based on the popularity of English letters. “Now, in English, the letter which most frequently occurs is e. Afterwards, the succession runs thus: a o i d h n r s t u y c f g l m w b k p q x z,” he wrote.
While Poe wasn’t quite accurate with his assessment of the most and least popular letters, the idea of ranking letters by how much they’re used in the English language intrigued Butts. Because such a ranking didn’t actually exist, Butts created his own by tediously counting letters in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and The Saturday Evening Post.
After tallying it all up in a complicated grid, Butts determined that the letters e, t, a, o, i, n, s, h, r, d, l, and u were used most frequently (they totaled 80 percent of letters typically used). Then, he devised his own word game.
Eventually, Butts acquired a partner who suggested several improvements to his concept, including the color scheme, the bonus for using all tiles in a single play, and new name: Scrabble.
Despite the multiple tweaks to name and gameplay, the game wasn’t massively popular until the chairman of Macy’s allegedly stumbled upon it while on vacation in 1952, then ordered thousands of sets for his stores. Scrabble has been a hit with word lovers and board game enthusiasts ever since, all thanks to a minor plot point in a nearly two-century-old short story. It’s a plot twist Poe probably never would have imagined.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.
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