Sports Nut

D-R-A-M-A

Big Scrabble’s decision to eliminate offensive words has infuriated players like never before.

Scrabble tiles with an ampersand, pound sign, question mark, and asterisk on them.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

In May, the North American Scrabble Players Association made a big announcement. Scopely Inc. had agreed to add the official tournament lexicon to its hot new app, Scrabble Go. That addressed a complaint among players: that the app’s bowdlerized dictionary didn’t include all 192,000 words allowed in competitive play, including several hundred offensive words—from BLOWJOB to MINDFUCK to YINGYANG—of the sort that have been permitted since tournaments emerged in the 1970s. In an email to members, the Scrabble association, known as NASPA, said it was “thrilled.”

Within a month, though—and in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests around the country—executives at NASPA, supported by some of its membership, were fighting to permanently remove from tournament Scrabble some of the very words they had just fought to gain access to. And this week, Scrabble’s owner, the toy and game giant Hasbro Inc., announced that NASPA would delete “all slurs” from its word list and that the company would rewrite the rules “to make clear that slurs are not permissible in any form of the game.”

The decision was predictable. As Confederate flags and statues, processed syrup logos, and sports team names face their fates, Hasbro couldn’t be seen as passively endorsing the right of a small group of word nuts to spell JEW or SPIC on a plastic grid. Unlike those unmistakably racist totems, however, slurs have—with respect to their use in Scrabble—a broad coalition of defenders, crossing lines of race, gender, sexual identity, and religion. As a result, the drive to expurgate them has prompted more contentiousness than I’ve witnessed in my 20-plus years embedded in the game, filled with accusations of factual distortion and bad-faith management by the Scrabble association, not to mention ominous invocations of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. The result was a clumsy decision to purge more than 200 words that alienated players both for and against expurgation—and satisfied almost no one. “At the moment, all the fun is being sucked out of Scrabble,” said Nicky Deco, a player from Kent, England, who runs a Scrabble page on Facebook and watched the debate over the words spill overseas, “and the divisions are growing deeper by the day.”

As I wrote in Slate last month, the idea to remove slurs that reference personal identity—including race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation—emerged from a suggestion by a player that Scrabble do something to respond to the protests. Another player suggested removing the N-word from the word list. NASPA’s chief executive, John Chew, a programmer from Toronto, took it a step further, formally proposing to ban all slurs from the game, and circulating a survey asking whether people supported axing all offensive language, just slurs, just the N-word, or doing nothing.

Despite the organization’s name, the 2,200 dues-paying members in the players association collectively have no control over its management. NASPA is a privately held nonprofit with a license from Hasbro to use the word Scrabble and to oversee the club and tournament word list in the United States and Canada. Volunteers staff various committees and an advisory board, but decision-making is centralized among a small group of people, led by Chew.

Chew was adamant that the slurs be banished. He assembled a list of proposed deletions—from ABO to YIDS—and stated that leaving such words in the game amounted to “contributing divisively to the world’s problems.” He theorized that competitive players for decades assented to the words because “they have been told” that words are devoid of meaning when played in the game. He told one reporter that playing a slur in Scrabble constituted “hate speech” and that “the right to use hate speech” was “a very popular opinion among Scrabble players.”

Like many players, I didn’t agree with those arguments. Words on a Scrabble board don’t constitute “hate speech” in a dictionary or legal sense. They don’t even, in any common understanding of the word, constitute “speech.” Merriam-Webster defines “hate speech” as “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as speech “inciting … hatred or intolerance.” Scrabble players do no such thing. They aren’t sending a message. By laying down letters, they are affirming that a word is a word, and nothing more. There may be momentary discomfort—in the last few weeks, players have told stories about games in which CUNT and JIGABOO hit the board—but I have never played or heard of anyone playing a word with intent beyond a strategic one, and doing so could in fact violate NASPA’s code of conduct.

To many players, including me, high-level Scrabble is more a math than a word game—it’s about probability, pattern recognition, board geometry, and strategic thinking. Letters and words are its tools. That doesn’t mean serious players are oblivious to words’ meanings or insensitive to the messages embedded in them. Players don’t conveniently rationalize using offensive words to score points, as Chew argued. I’ve spent lots of time contemplating the role of language in Scrabble, including offensive language, and also learning the meanings of hundreds of obscure words I’d only use in the game. Most of us were word lovers before we were Scrabble players.

I’m conscious of my skin color (white), gender (male), and implicit biases. But I think it should be possible to reconcile these two thoughts: Some words are offensive, grossly so, and they are still words. Which is why I opposed cleansing the word list. Making offensive words ineligible for a board game won’t make them or their sentiments disappear. It would say that even just seeing a word is offensive, and that seems like a dangerous and misguided idea. As one Scrabble player wrote, “Words aren’t in a dictionary to honor them.”

Still, it’s also correct to argue, as some players did, that the act of forming the word LEZ or COLOREDS or worse on a Scrabble board could be hurtful to someone who has to look at it for the duration of a game. And that we should strive as a society to eliminate any use of hurtful language in any setting. And that removing a tiny set of words would have minimal practical impact on the game—apart from a few short words, slurs come down infrequently—and could represent a positive gesture in a time of turmoil and reflection. All of that is true, which is why this was such a potent topic.

I asked Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy about the Scrabble debate. Kennedy, who is Black, is the author of the 2002 book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. He isn’t a competitive Scrabble player. He told me it’s understandably reasonable to be concerned that any deployment of a slur gives the word legitimation. He also said it’s healthy to question the use of words in the current climate around social justice—but not at the expense of other values.

“My view is that the context in which a word is used always conditions the meaning of the word,” Kennedy told me. “If you were using a term in a setting in which it’s clear that there is no message being sent, and in fact is an agglomeration, a series of symbols—a, b, c, d, e, and the rest—I don’t see what the problem is. If the word is being used in a way that is demeaning, if the word is being used in a way that is putting down people, I’m against that. But if the word is being used in some other fashion, then that should be recognized and understood.”

In his book, Kennedy argues against “eradicationists” who want the N-word to be expunged from the language. Doing so, he told me, would diminish James Baldwin, Mark Twain, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Richard Pryor, Eudora Welty, and more. “I would rather more speech than less. I would rather knowledge than erasure,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a tremendous loss in this campaign of bowdlerization, this campaign of euphemism by dint of punishment if you don’t go along with it.”

As for the narrow case of Scrabble, Kennedy said that slurs might make a player or their opponent nervous or anxious—and should—because such words “scare.” Instead of expurgation, though, he suggested that Scrabble create a guidebook explaining the history and power of individual words. “If you’re gonna use it, do be aware that you’re taking on something,” Kennedy said. “I’m not saying you cannot. I’m simply saying you do have an added responsibility.” Indeed, a number of Scrabble players suggested creating a warning that slurs might be seen during club or tournament games or when matches are streamed or reported online.

Much of the ire in the Scrabble community has been about a process that was tilted toward expurgation. After circulating his survey to NASPA members and the broader public, Chew periodically summarized the comments on his personal Facebook page, not NASPA’s. He often singled out extreme, ignorant, and sometimes blatantly racist comments, prompting calls for their writers to be named or even banned. “I’ve read a lot of truly ugly thoughts that read like they were being spoken by a colonial slave owner,” Chew wrote one day. In an email to the entire community after Hasbro’s announcement, he said, “We have a lot of racists, and we have a lot of bleeding-heart liberals.”

But Chew also noted that fringe remarks amounted to about 4 percent of responses. The main complaint among players was that Chew appeared unwilling to acknowledge that an ethical defense of retaining the slurs was even possible. Dan Horowitz, a lawyer in Wilmington, Delaware, told me a long comment he wrote in the survey about differences between offensive symbols and offensive words was truncated in such a way to make it “as misleading as William Barr’s ‘summary’ of the Mueller report.”

Overall, the survey results clearly favored retaining offensive words. Of almost 1,200 responses, just 1 in 3 respondents backed removing the slurs or all offensive words. Forty-six percent supported leaving the word list unchanged, and another 11 percent favored eliminating only the N-word. The gap between those who play competitively and those who don’t was even wider: 50 percent of NASPA members favored no change in the list at all, compared with just 8 percent of other respondents.

When he unveiled his proposal, Chew promised to abide by a vote of the group’s player advisory board. Hasbro’s announcement on Tuesday made that moot. A NASPA official told me Hasbro contacted Chew last week and a meeting was held on Monday. One advisory board member said on Facebook that “the choice was apparently remove the slurs or lose your license.” On Thursday night, the board went ahead and voted anyway, rebuking Chew and Hasbro and voting 6–4 to make no changes to the word list. “I’m glad that we did our job, which was to represent the membership,” board member Jason Idalski told me. “I’m kind of at peace with the fact that our corporate overlords just overruled us.”

Had Chew consulted with Hasbro before going public, though, the Scrabble community probably could have avoided weeks of rancor and division. And the debate is far from over. There’s already discussion about whether to delete words that aren’t on the list because they have other, inoffensive senses—BITCH, DICK, FAG, FAGGOT, GYP, HO, REDSKIN, RETARD, and more. Or to not delete words on the current list that seem benign, like BALDIE and HICKSVILLE. Leaving garden-variety vulgarities and obscenities in the game could prove embarrassing. “The hallmark of a rash, ill-conceived decision is that it requires continual cleaning up of the sloppiness that invariably ensues,” said Robin Pollock Daniel, a Canadian expert player.

Dictionaries don’t label words “slurs,” so compiling a final list is likely to generate further disagreement. Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told me the company shared with NASPA its list of words labeled offensive, vulgar, obscene, and disparaging but won’t be involved in deciding what’s a slur and what’s not. “There are obviously plenty of words with those labels that have nothing to do with identity and are not likely to cause personal offense, and therefore all such calls must be made by NASPA,” he said.

One more thorny problem is that NASPA sanctions play in North America using a word list managed by its counterpart overseas, the World English Language Scrabble Players Association. That group’s chair, an American player, Chris Lipe, told me it is discussing slurs with the dictionary-maker Collins, which publishes the international list. (Scrabble outside of North America is owned by Mattel Inc.) Judging by online comments, international players appear overwhelmingly opposed to expurgation. If their word list isn’t purged, can NASPA host events where slurs are banned on some boards but not others?

NASPA said its deletions will take effect by September. In the meantime, the state of the game—and the targeted words—will be on players’ minds. “The N-word was played against me by another NASPA player last Sunday,” Nicholas Tam of Ottawa said after the announcement came down. “Luckily, we were opponents who trusted each other to be adults about the nature of words in the game. I regret to say I am compelled to cherish the moment.”