Looking back, I realize that puns have been my markers of this pandemic.
In the first wave, cooped up at home, I religiously jumbled into my daily life in Kolkata, deciphering words and then solving a puny word puzzle. It was a way to find some measure of control in an unraveling world, a beacon of hope in dark times. Or maybe I turned to it to delay reading the headlines about a rampaging pandemic.
In the second wave, I was immersed in The New York Times Spelling bee. Unlike the Jumble, this could take hours. I could keep coming back to it all day trying to find more words from the seven letters in play. I would feel a dopamine rush when I could fit all seven letters into the word pangram or reach the coveted Genius level. And I could complain about the words the spelling bee didn’t recognize – TIFFIN or CONGEE or HAMMAM. The spelling bee answered some basic needs: the desire to feel a sense of accomplishment and the need to complain. It’s no coincidence that I follow a Twitter account called Not a Spelling Word, where one can complain about words that should be recognized by the bee but aren’t.
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In the third wave of coronavirus, stuck at home in Omicron quarantine, I discovered wordle. It’s the new word addiction, where you try to guess a five-letter word in six tries. Like many others, I discovered this when my Twitter timeline was suddenly inundated with gray, green, and yellow boxes of people sharing their wordle prowess.
I was skeptical and a little snobby about wordle. The spelling bee seemed more dignified. wordle took too little time. And once that was done, you had to wait until the next day for the next word. I just couldn’t fathom the point of all this obsessive social media sharing of your wordle accomplishment of the day. As my timeline filled up with gray, green, and yellow boxes, it was like that old Pete Seeger song about little boxes: “and they’re all made of tacky pantyhose and they all look alike.”
i can understand why wordle is addictive. In November, the game had 90 players. Now it has more than two million. Matthew Baldwin, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Florida, told the Science Friday podcast that it is a “shared experience, we see our friends playing it, we share the results on social networks”. And when we were “looking for some kind of social cohesion”, wordle turned out to be the right game at the right time.
But there’s something about wordle I didn’t like it at first. wordle is almost the anti-app, the antithesis of all social media games. You do not need to register with an email. It’s free but does not collect any data about you. It doesn’t send notifications and doesn’t try to keep you hooked on your device playing endless games. It doesn’t care about monetization. “It doesn’t do all those nasty things,” said Adam Proctor, who runs the game design course at the University of Southampton. The Guardian. “That was what the web looked like when we first got it, it was much more playful.”
Weirdly, that’s what made me roll my eyes at wordle initially. It was almost too basic and boring, too understated. Even its URL (www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle/) felt dated. The color code, The New Yorkra said, reminiscent of the 1970 board game Mastermind. Wordle, as it stands, will have to end one day because it only has 2,500 five-letter words in its kitty. It would be poetic if the last word was GOODBYE, the one professional users often use as a first guess.
In his new book, Stolen Concentration – Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari meets Aza Raskin, who invented “infinite scrolling” that freed us from having to click a button to go to the next page on the Internet. Raskin thought he made life easier for everyone. He later realized that infinite scroll made us spend a conservative estimate of 50% more time on sites like Twitter. He told Hari he felt “a little dirty” when he thought about all the time we mindlessly scrolled instead of really connecting with family and friends or solving climate change or even reading. a book. But the social media giants are singularly focused on one thing and one thing only, Hari writes: trying to get us to pick up our phones more and more and scroll longer and longer.
Same The New York Times makes more money by selling game subscriptions separate from news subscriptions. By the end of 2020, it had 840,000 game subscriptions, up 40% from 2019. Ram Subramaniam, a friend of mine who still resists subscribing because he finds it annoying to have to subscribe separately to different parts of the same newspaper, told me, he still plays the truncated version of the Spelling Bee every day. He is just trying to get the pangram word of the day in the odds he gave. wordle is different. As its creator once said, it only takes about three minutes of my time. And he won’t sell me anything. Or sell me to someone.
It was created by software engineer Josh Wardle for his partner and pun fan, Palak Shah. “It’s really adorable,” Shah said. The New York Times. “That’s definitely how Josh shows his love.” And it kind of has that handmade, artisanal feel to it. It’s a throwback to an old love story with words I had almost forgotten.
When I was a kid, I bullied my sister into playing Name Place Animal Thing. She made me happy from time to time. His hesitation was understandable because the game could go on forever and I wanted to play it forever, an infinite scroll before such a thing existed. We also played Executioner in our school notebooks, a guessing ancestor of wordle, and sometimes, on rainy evenings, we went out Scrabble board game. It was still a red letter day for me when I landed the triple word score, similar to the pangram moment on the Spelling Bee. Of course I wanted to win this Scrabble game, but there was really fun to play, something wonderful to see the empty board slowly fill with letters, words that intertwine, feed into each other and form new words in wonderful and unexpected.
Early in the morning, I moved to the windowsill, drew the curtains behind me, taking care not to wake my sister, and read the dictionary if I had no more storybooks. It was not an effort to improve my vocabulary. I just enjoyed opening the dictionary to a random page and reading unfamiliar words there while listening to the familiar sounds of the city slowly coming to life around me, the crows croaking and the vegetable vendors swarming around me. installing. I loved reading Lewis Carroll Jabberwocky and Sukumar Ray Abol Tabol and make sense of words that don’t make sense. I made up my own childish puns – turning HEAD into TAIL, one letter at a time (HEAD-HEAL-HELL-HALL-TALL-TAIL). I never gave it a name but I would lie in bed playing this game until I fell asleep comfortably surrounded by words.
The words filled me with wonder. As a useless boy in sports, words were also my refuge, an armor to protect me in the playground. But at some point, I got used to them. They have become tools, something to manipulate, a way to earn a living, to score points. From playing with words, I became more preoccupied with puns.
Word games like wordle restore some of that ancient wonder, not in the ease with the words but just in the words themselves. It reminds me of my nameless game of childhood nights. It reminds me of the transformative power of a single letter.
Cult Friction is a bimonthly column about the issues we keep grappling with. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
Also read: How India lost and regained its words