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The Decemberists' Guide to Winning Scrabble

Colin Meloy is at the center of the Decemberists' wordplay.

Colin Meloy is at the center of the Decemberists' wordplay.

The Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy's incredibly deep vocabulary has made him one of rock's most famous nerds. I'd hate to come up against him in Scrabble.

Listen to any tune from the first three Decemberists albums -- 2002's Castaways and Cutouts, 2003's Her Majesty, the Decemberists and 2005's Picaresque -- and you'll hear Meloy singing of bagatelles, gunwales, and roustabouts. His lyrics have become more colloquial of late, especially this year's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, but the Portland quintet are still the kings of literary indie rock.

To put his verbiage to even better use, I combed through the lyrics to every Decemberists song and found over 40 words I could've never identified on my Scrabble tile holder. Then I whittled that list down to 10 high-yielding words that are verified by the official Scrabble Tournament Word List. Here are the findings.

If you come across anybody playing these words in online Scrabble, you'll know one of two things -- they're using a word generator, or they're a Decemberists fan.

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Below, I've ranked these words by their minimum possible scores with three caveats -- 1) we're under the assumption they're being played as bingos, which award you 50 bonus points for using all seven of your tiles, 2) all bingos will at least hit one multiplier, which at the minimum is a double-letter space and 3) scores will vary depending on where they're played on the board and could double in value in a perfect scenario.

10. Wastrel Minimum possible score: 61 points Song: "Leslie Anne Levine," Castaways and Cutouts, 2002 Definition: A wasteful or good-for-nothing person Use it in a sentence: "A wastrel mésallied has brought this fate on me."

"Leslie Anne Levine" is the very first song on the very first Decemberists album, and boy is it a doozy. The song, set in 1842, introduces us to the Decemberists universe by weaving the first-person account of a baby girl who is "born at nine and dead at noon" and takes her young mother with her into the grave. Now 15 years later, her ghost mourns a life never lived, singing of "a wastrel mésallied (translation: a worthless person placed into a marriage with someone of greater social status)." Hey, don't talk about your mother like that!

9. Plinth(s) Minimum possible score: 62 points Song: "Don't Carry It All," The King is Dead, 2011 Definition: A heavy base supporting a statue or base Use it in a sentence: "Upon a plinth that towers towards the trees."

You'll need an S tile to pluralize this word and hit the bingo. "Don't Carry It All" appears to be about a good-for-one-good-for-all village, possibly a commune, coming together to mourn the death of a young boy. "A monument to build beneath the arbors/Upon a plinth that towers towards the trees" Meloy sings, suggesting that these people are constructing a memorial for the child to "return his quiet certitude to soil." The bouncy melody and peppy instrumentation give no hint of that lyrical darkness.

8. Stevedore Minimum possible score: 65 points Song: "The Soldiering Life," Her Majesty, the Decemberists, 2003 Definition: A person employed at a dock to load and unload cargo from ships Use it in a sentence: "Proud array standing by the bathing soliders and stevedores."

Who knew that your next-door neighbor's name was an acceptable Scrabble word when made into a compound? As its name implies, "The Soldiering Life" is about camaraderie amongst the infantry and one of the easiest-to-decipher Decemberists tunes. Meloy's antiquated word usage suggests the song is set during a World War I battle. I predict that "colinmeloy" will one day become a word and be defined as "an intellectual prone to showing off his or her large vocabulary."

7. Cardamom Minimum possible score: 67 points Song: "Shanty for the Arethusa," Her Majesty, the Decemberists, 2003 Definition: The aromatic seeds of a plant of the ginger family Use it in a sentence: "The air was thick with incense, cardamom and myrrh."

No, this word doesn't refer to a soccer mom who's really into cardio workouts -- it's one of the many esoteric terms Meloy uses in referring to the plant kingdom. "Shanty for the Arethusa" is an old-fashioned seafaring song sung from the perspective of sailors bound for South Australia on a clipper packed with spices and rum. Cardamom is native to south-central Asia, so perhaps this gives a clue as to where our imaginary sailors began their journey.

6. Parallax Minimum possible score: 68 points Song: "The Island," The Crane Wife, 2006 Definition: The effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions Use it in a sentence: "Its contents watched by Sycorax and Patagon in parallax."

Parallax is just one of three words in this stanza that needs an annotation, but Sycorax was a Shakespearian witch and the Patagon a mythical race of giants, so neither proper noun could be played in Scrabble. This lyric can be found in "Come & See," the first of three movements in the 12-minute-long "The Island." Those who paid better attention in math and science class may actually recognize this term. [page]

4 (tie). Corncrake Minimum possible score: 69 points Song: "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)," The Hazards of Love, 2009 Definition: A secretive Eurasian crake inhabiting coarse grasslands Use it in a sentence: "We'll lie 'till the corncrake crows."

The Hazards of Love is one of The Decemberists' most accomplished works and certainly their most operatic. The album's story arc finds a woman named Margaret falling head over heels for a shape-shifting tree named William. (Tolkien fans -- think Beorn mixed with Treebeard.) Because this is a Decemberists album, both die in the end, but everything's okay because "these hazards of love nevermore will trouble us."

4 (tie). Charabanc Minimum possible score: 69 points Song: "The Legionnaire's Lament," Castaways and Cutouts, 2002 Definition: An early form of bus, used typically for pleasure trips Use it in a sentence: "On the old left bank, my baby in a charabanc."

Not only can we ascertain that the French solider from this song yearns for his native Paris, but it can also be surmised that he is aiding in the conquest of Algeria during the 1830s or '40s. Riding a "camel in despair," he hopes for a summer rain to fall and dreams of driving along the Seine in a charabanc with his significant other. The modern equivalent of this French vehicle, which was used for sightseeing and other large group outings, would probably be a charter bus. Would you be surprised at all to see the Decemberists pull up to your city in a charabanc?

3. Odalisque Minimum possible score: 70 points Song: "Odalisque," Castaways and Cutouts, 2002 Definition: A female slave or concubine in a harem Use it in a sentence: "They've come to find you, odalisque, as the light dies horribly."

We've at the point where all of the remaining words will use the much-coveted Q and Z tiles, worth 10 base points apiece. Get that Q on a triple-letter space and/or any tile on the double-word and you'll be faring much better in your Scrabble game than the unnamed Turkish slave is in this song. She's escaping from the evil narrator through the fire escape, "reserved to drop" if she has to. Meloy's vivid lyrics perfectly paint the protagonist's fear and the desperation of her situation.

2. Palanquin Minimum possible score: 72 points Song: "The Infanta," Picaresque, 2005 Definition: A covered litter for one passenger, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles by four or six bearers Use it in a sentence: "Here she comes in a palanquin on the back of an elephant."

Hear that lyric and you know exactly what a palanquin is. This was the thing that carried Belle's dad away in Beauty and the Beast and was like the first-class of the first millennium. The narrator in "The Infanta" is heralding the arrival of the king and his kin, who are sitting pretty in their private rooms while the servants do all the work. This cut also features some of Meloy's most metrically pleasing lines: "Among five score pachyderm/ Each canopied and passengered" and "A phalanx on camelback/ Thirty ranks on forward tack."

1. Bombazine Minimum possible score: 75 points Song: "The Soldiering Life," Her Majesty, the Decemberists, 2003 Definition: A twilled dress fabric of worsted and silk or cotton Use it in a sentence: "But you my bombazine doll, the bullets may singe your skin and the mortars may fall."

Bombazine is a soft fabric that was once used to make dresses, but in "The Soldiering Life," Meloy uses it to talk about his serviceman character's comrade. While the first verse describes this fellow soldier as "a brick bag, a bowery tough so rough," the narrator later suggests he's soft and friendly on the inside. This would be a much more badass word if it referred to a magazine, whether of the periodical or ammunition variety, of bombs. Regardless, you can use it to blow up the Scrabble board.

The Decemberists. With Alvvays. 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, March 24 at Northrop Auditorium. Sold Out.

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