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shameless pleading






Hey, how come there’s no four-letter word for “four-letter word”?

Dear Word Detective: I recently found “sabe” on the Scrabble word list. I wondered what it meant, but could only find it in the Merriam-Webster Scrabble Players Dictionary as a verb meaning “to savvy.” I know “savvy” is related to the Spanish “sabe,” but have been unable to find any English use of the word. Is it an English word? If not, any idea how it ended up on the word list?

Rats. I was getting all fired up for my anti-Scrabble rant, which I trot out every two or three years, when I had a disturbing realization. I personally dislike playing Scrabble. But the game’s makers really ought to be awarded some sort of prize for enriching the vocabulary of millions of people since Alfred Mosher Butts, an unemployed architect, invented it in 1938. Then again, Butts gets the credit, but he didn’t really invent the Scrabble game we know today. His original version was called “Lexico,” and didn’t even have a game board, just the little tiles. It wasn’t until a guy named James Brunot bought the rights to Lexico in 1947, fiddled with it a bit, added the board, and renamed it Scrabble that the game took off. The Chairman of Macy’s played Scrabble on vacation, ordered all his stores to stock it, and turned it into a national sensation. Today, according to Hasbro, the game’s current maker, there’s a Scrabble set in one out of every three US households. We actually own a very nice deluxe set ourselves, received as a gift a decade ago. It makes a lovely bookend.

In any case, yes, “sabe” is a real English word (pronounced “SAH-bay”) although it is a direct borrowing of the Spanish word “sabe.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “to sabe” as a simple synonym of “to savvy,” which in turn means “to know, to understand, to comprehend.” The OED notes that “savvy,” and presumably “sabe” as well, are often used in the interrogative form “Sabe?” or “Savvy?” following an explanation given to someone whose understanding of said explanation is considered, for whatever reason, to be in doubt (“You’ve got to quit; savey?”, 1897; “Ha! Sabe that?” 1850). Both “sabe” and “savvy” are also nouns, meaning “practical intelligence” or “street smarts,” and adjectives meaning “quick-witted” or “in the know” (“A savvy tenant putting a deposit on his house gains a 12-month option to buy at the price ruling when he made the deposit,” 1980). Interestingly, the OED also defines the interjection “Quien sabe?”, originally a Spanish phrase meaning “Who knows?” or “Who can say?” (“Was this the same man for whom Murdock’s Landing was named? Quien sabe?”, 2005).

When those of us who grew up with 1950s television in the US hear “sabe,” many of us immediately think of the word “kemosabe,” which is what Tonto, faithful Indian companion to the Lone Ranger, called the masked dude in the wildly popular TV series. But there doesn’t seem to be any connection between “sabe” and “kemosabe.” According to an exhaustive investigation by The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams ( many years ago, Jim Jewell, who directed the Lone Ranger radio serial back in the late 1930s, took the word from the name of a camp (Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee) run by his father-in-law in Michigan. Jewell maintained that “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” meant “trusted scout” in the local Indian language, and he was at least in the ballpark on that. Cecil Adams managed to track down language exerts who confirmed that the word “giimoozaabi” did mean something like “scout” in the Ojibwe language, the Ottawa tribe in the area of the camp did speak Ojibwe, and “giimoozaabi” probably sounded a good deal like “Kee-Mo Sah-Bee” or “Kemosabe.” That’s some serious detective work.

Unfortunately, even the awesome and resourceful Cecil Adams was unable to determine just how the Lone Ranger’s faithful Indian companion ended up with the name “Tonto,” which, in Spanish, is an insult meaning “drunk” or “crazy.”

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