Wordle and Spelling Bee aren’t just puns

‘I thought: how hard can this be?’

Sam Ezersky at work in the offices of The New York Times. NYT

When Ezersky selects the hexagon of letters for each day, a computer generates a list of possible words. Ezersky’s job is to narrow down this list to those the puzzle will accept. He first took on the role in 2018 as a side job to editing the crossword in the paper’s print edition, and he used the same principle as the crossword page: is the word enough current so that the average solver can expect to guess it? He didn’t expect it to take long.

“I thought: how hard can this be?” he tells me. “I can just say yes to some words and no to others.” He quickly discovers that he has fallen into a trap that has held back lexicographers since the work of Samuel Johnson. English language dictionary in 1755.

The line between “appropriate” words and invented, unknown or otherwise illegitimate words is always, to some degree, arbitrary – and painful for those on the wrong side of the divide. Johnson is often praised for his ecumenical approach, but he left out the most talked about slang. Updates to Official Scrabble Players Dictionary cause outrage for lending legitimacy to words like “ew”. But at least Merriam-Webster only has to deal with haters every few years; Ezersky faces them every day.

After the publication of Spelling Bee each day, dozens of people send e-mails The New York Times complaining about the words he took or didn’t take. Several Twitter accounts with names like “Not a Spelling Word” only exist to troll Ezersky. When the puzzle did not accept the word “raffia” (a decision since overturned), a frustrated player sent meters of material to the New York Timesin protest, accompanied by a threat to pursue with an ortolan (“animals are so risky,” sighs Ezersky). His biggest critics are members of the sailing community, who resent him every time he doesn’t accept ‘alee’ (the side of a ship sheltered from the wind and a handy pointer).

A right decision

Ezersky takes complaints to heart and often revises his policy if a reader presents a good case: “I’m committed to making it a game for the people.” It’s easier to tell what may be “common” to print readers, he says, than to a diverse and geographically dispersed digital audience (The New York Times recently launched a scholarship for a “Diversified Crossword Builder” to attract a wider range of setters to its ranks).

Ezersky’s North Star is now “what seems right”. Although The Spelling Bee is still officially his side-gig, he sometimes spends two hours agonizing over a single word, consulting several different dictionaries and The New York Times articles looking for a fair decision. He’s so concerned about accidentally leaving words behind that he rigged an anagram solver on his phone to catch anything the computer might have missed.

Loanwords like Hammam are particularly stressful because the language communities that might consider them common are often more marginalized than, say, sailing enthusiasts. He doesn’t feel as qualified to pass judgment on these words and tends to rely on data such as how often they appear in various dictionaries. He will not take any word that could double as an insult against a particular community.

(Merriam-Webster got into trouble when one of its daily online puzzles produced the word “lynched” hours after the trial of the police officer who murdered George Floyd, an unarmed black man. Since buying Wordle the New York Times has changed its lexicon, so that it no longer accepts words such as “slave”.)

I ask him about “intrepid” and I immediately feel bad: it turns out that was a mistake. The computer generates a lot of “no” words that are never used, and he must have accidentally cut “fearless” with the others. Turns out, the reaction from readers was way more intense than my Twitter feed.

“He became something that seemed bigger than missing a word in a puzzle,” making Ezersky anxious and miserable. “Part of that, looking back, was sheer abundance,” he says, “and part was disbelief… ‘how dare you?’ It was like – excuse my French – “You idiot! “” Ezersky deleted Twitter from his phone.

Social status

Allison Parrish: “A good Scrabble hit means more than ‘I’m a better Scrabble player than you’.”

In 2015, New York University telecommunications professor Allison Parrish gave a presentation on why Scrabble “turns people into a**holes”, drawing inspiration from a game she played. with her own family in which she spoiled everyone’s fun with joyless mysteries. words. Being good at Scrabble isn’t the same as excelling at poker or soccer, Parrish said, because Scrabble’s key skill – having a rich and “correctly” spelled vocabulary – is much more tied to social status than to other skills.

“A good Scrabble move is about saying more than ‘I’m a better Scrabble player than you,'” she said. “It’s saying ‘I’m a better person than you. I’m more literate than you.’ It was “the source of the bad feelings you get while playing Scrabble”.

I find my failures at word games disproportionately hurtful, not least because nowadays everyone smugly posts their Wordle scores on social media. But I don’t think my frustration with Spelling Bee’s rejections is purely ego-related. This is because they break the sense of borderless brotherhood created by a popular online puzzle.

One of the things I love most about Spelling Bee is chatting with friends around the world on WhatsApp. Internet English belongs neither to Britain nor to the United States: it is an expression of billions of speakers from dozens of countries or, in linguistic jargon, a “web-based English corpus “. It seems shocking and anachronistic that the conventions of one country are imposed on all the others.

I decide to make the most of my time with the referee: is Ezersky sure he can’t take “totty”? Even my American husband learned to adopt him. “I could just classify it as British slang, which I’m not sure would be fair for the US-centric solver,” he apologises. And then he goes off to read the next angry email.

— review of 1843



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