Every year we spend part of our summer holidays with friends in their cottage on Bruce Beach on the shores of Lake Huron in Canada. Entertainment is sparse around here so, once the kids are in bed, we hunker down to some marathon games of Scrabble.
Over the years this has developed into quite a tradition, with a garish tartan cap the prize for the winner. There is, however, one enormous problem with playing Scrabble with North Americans – they don't speak English. We are, in Oscar Wilde's wise words, "two nations divided by a common language".
There are two Scrabble dictionaries, one for North Americans, one for Brits. If you go on to the official website it asks you to choose one before accessing the word checker. This has actually not been a problem until last night, when I used the two-letter word "qi". This is one of my stock two-letter get-out words, and means life force. To be precise, I used the plural, qis.
"I challenge," said my host, who claimed to know every legitimate two-letter word. This was quite a step for a Canadian – normally a very un-confrontational people. I sat back smugly, confident in the knowledge that this was a winner.
He thumbed through the little leaflet that comes with the game. It listed all the two-letter words – qi was not there. I demanded to see a dictionary. One was eventually produced and, once again, qi was not there. In desperation I went online to check the Scrabble website. I checked the North American version and qi was not there. On the European version, however, it most certainly was, and the plural was listed as well. I demanded that he withdraw his challenge and apologise. He refused and reminded me that we were in Canada. "When in Toronto, do as the Torontonians do." Quite apart from the fact that we weren't even in Toronto, this comparing Toronto to Rome riled me further. Our positions were drawn and the game stalled – we were at loggerheads, a Scrabble-off.
Suddenly, a diplomatic breakthrough. Stacey suggested that I use my Facebook and Twitter accounts for something useful for once. Why didn't I put the problem up online and we'd get an independent ruling? Even though it was three in the morning back in the UK, I know enough insomniacs and internationalists to feel confident that we'd get a good answer. So online I went, and up went our situation
There was a deluge. I've never had such a huge amount of replies. They were mostly along two lines. The first was that it was ridiculous that North Americans can't speak proper English but, since I was playing in Canada, local rules apply. I ignored these – they were clearly the work of turncoats. The second consensus was summed up best by one that read very simply – "Queen trumps colony." I howled with laughter and passed this on to my hosts who looked at me with sour expressions. Another missive expressed deep concern that Canada, a country that still has our beloved Queen as their figurehead, should choose not to speak her English. The sender was appalled that they should share a Scrabble dictionary with America, a country that, in his opinion, is barely able to read, let alone play Scrabble. I was forced to remind him that the game was actually invented in the US.
In the end, after several hours of negotiation, we agreed to accept words that appeared on either side of the pond and "qis" was allowed. Not only that, it turned out to be the winning margin, and I am one step nearer to wearing the hallowed tartan cap.