On this week’s episode of Spectacular Vernacular, Slate’s podcast about language, hosts Nicole Holliday and Ben Zimmer spoke with Sam Ezersky, digital puzzles editor for the New York Times, about the online Spelling Bee, which he oversees. This transcript been condensed and edited for clarity.
Nicole Holliday: In 2017, the Times hires you out of college as an assistant puzzles editor, and the following year they put you in charge of a new game they’re introducing on the website, the Spelling Bee. It’s a really simple game. You just have to make as many words as you can using seven letters from that day’s hive, one of which is an essential letter that you have to use in every word. Was the game a hit right away, or did it take some time to build a following?
Sam Ezersky: This game was adopted from the print Spelling Bee, which has been around since 2014 or 2015 and still today appears weekly in the Sunday Times Magazine, curated by Frank Longo. When Spelling Bee was adopted for digital in May 2018, people who were longtime puzzle solvers were familiar with the game because they had solved the Sunday crossword in the magazine. But the major following came around the start of the pandemic. It was a steady stream of people becoming more and more interested in this quirky word game that was easy enough to pick up and also easy enough to become super avid about. In this last year it’s absolutely taken off. Wherever I look, somebody’s playing the Spelling Bee.
Holliday: Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the Spelling Bee universe. Everyone’s striving to reach genius level, and the true obsessives keep going until they find all the possible words, achieving queen bee status. It’s important to note that you don’t know how many possible words there are when you’re going for queen bee, so sometimes I’ve gotten to genius and been like, “Should I keep going? It could be five more words or it could be 25 more words.” And it’s midnight, and I don’t know if I could do this with my life, but it’s so addictive. What is the process of deciding which words are in and which words are out for each day’s hive?
That’s the million-dollar question! A lot of the calls are pretty easy. Even though the word list is a binary “yes, it’s in the word list” or “no, it’s not in the word list,” there are tons and tons of close calls. My methodology is just extensive research. If I’m unsure, if this is something that’s a total blind spot–hello to all the gardeners out there, you all know I don’t know my plants that well—I’ll go digging around. I’ll see if it gets a lot of news coverage. I’ll see if the word is listed in the major dictionaries that I have at my disposal, which primarily are Merriam-Webster and the Mac dictionary, which I believe riffs off New Oxford American. Ultimately, my guiding question is: What feels fair to our wide-ranging audience? I don’t want to snub those where it’s a word that is so common to their background or lifestyle or culture, but I also don’t want to include something that will truly mystify the vast majority of our solving audience—and not just those queen bee folks who know everything.
Holliday: Relatedly, is there a specific criterion you use for how difficult the puzzle can be? As a player, I’ve seen combos of letters that allow for hundreds of options and some that allow for just a few dozen. Some of the words are really hard, especially to get the pangram, which requires all the letters. A few weeks ago, the pangram was imbroglio. I was using my linguist skills, trying out the combinations of letters, probabilistically—doing bigrams and trigrams—as well as solving with an Italian speaker. And it was only because I was doing that, and I had an Italian speaker, that I got imbroglio. How do you decide what’s in bounds, in terms of difficulty?
That pangram was so difficult and so hard to see, to stitch together a few letters and then tack on the remaining ones. I believe all the other words in the word list were six letters or fewer and were very, very, very straightforward. That was a lucky day for me. I don’t believe there was a single marginal call, but that pangram was wicked, right? I usually try to avoid that, though. I try to make the puzzle hard primarily through the answers in the puzzle, especially the longer ones that are worth more points, rather than the pangram itself.
I have a particularly high bar with the pangram, because that is the linchpin of the puzzle. There are some solvers who won’t even begin solving the rest of the puzzle until they find the pangrams. It’s also worth so many points. If you’re not finding the pangram, it’s going to be really hard to gain progress.
Ben Zimmer: Regardless of how hard the pangram is, if you go on Twitter and you check out the whole hive-mind discourse, regardless of whether it was an easy day or a difficult day, there’s always so much chatter about every little thing. Why wasn’t this word accepted? Why was this word I’ve never heard of accepted? Do you just ignore all that chatter? Or are you actually going in there and looking for constructive criticism about how you might shape your word list?
Listen up, hive mind, I do listen to what you have to say. Even if I want to plug my ears and go, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting absolutely dragged for this word.” That’s part of the responsibility of being in this role. I check my notifications less than I used to, because I know I’m going to wake up every day with a whole barrage of who knows what. But the feedback’s important.
Listen to the full episode of Spectacular Vernacular below.