Downtime

The Word Nerd Reckoning

Should you play a racial slur in Scrabble? Elite players are having a heated debate.

A Scrabble rack with "Bohunk" crossed out.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jude Beck on Unsplash and Mish Vizesi on Unsplash.

It is an accepted norm of competitive Scrabble that for the duration of a game, from the first tile played to the last, the meanings of words are meaningless. Whatever combination of letters offers the best strategic outcome is the right one. A little old lady once played CUNT against me. My teenage daughter laid down FUCKERS. A frequently played word is JEW, defined in some dictionaries as an offensive term for “bargain.” It gets rid of the tricky J and W.

But the nationwide protests over racism and police violence have prompted a rethinking of the conventional wisdom about the role of words in Scrabble. What started with a call last week for the Scrabble community to support Black Lives Matter led to a proposal by leadership of the North American Scrabble Players Association to eliminate slurs—about 80 in all, plus alternate spellings and inflections, for a total of 238 words—from the master list of words that are permissible in club and tournament play.

“I have felt for a long time that there are some words in our lexicon that we hang onto in the mistaken belief that our spelling them with tiles on a board strips them of their power to cause harm,” NASPA’s chief executive, John Chew, wrote to the group’s 11-member advisory board. “When we play a slur, we are declaring that our desire to score points in a word game is of more value to us than the slur’s broader function as a way to oppress a group of people. I don’t think that this is the time for us to be contributing divisively to the world’s problems.”

In theory, Scrabble strips all words of their “broader function.” Players don’t say the words they form out loud, and aren’t using them to communicate thoughts, feelings, or ideas—they’re using them to score points and nothing more. The only standard for a word’s playability has been whether it meets the criteria for admission into the Scrabble lexicon. But it’s also true that the words are always lying there, staring up from the board. And the question of whether the appearance of slurs in that space should be troubling or not is dividing players of the game.

This is Scrabble’s second walk on these hot linguistic coals. In the mid-1990s, an art gallery owner in Virginia objected to the fact that JEW, along with a slew of other slurs and obscenities, was in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. Hasbro, the game’s owner, and Merriam-Webster, the dictionary’s publisher, replied that while they don’t condone the words, the dictionary is a repository of the language, not its moral arbiter. Unsatisfied, she took her case to the Anti-Defamation League, which accused Hasbro of “literally playing games with hate.” Hasbro backed down. Words carrying the label “offensive” were expunged from the Scrabble dictionary.

Competitive players objected, and a deal was brokered: Club and tournament Scrabble would be governed by a separate lexicon that allowed the expurgated words, including vulgarities like FUCK (and a half-dozen variations) and SHIT (more than a dozen variations) and slurs like the N-word and REDSKIN. Players collected them in what came to be known as the Poo List. In the quarter-century since, elite Scrabble players have deployed the occasional offensive word without controversy or, usually, a second thought.

Now players are proposing to do from within what a lobbying campaign once succeeded in forcing from without. The move began with the suggestion, in a private Facebook group called NASPA Member Concerns, that the community demonstrate support for the protest movement. A player from Texas, Jim Hughes, offered a concrete action. “[R]emoving certain offensive words from our lexicon, such as N—–(S) and others,” he wrote, “could show our solidarity with BLM and demonstrate that NASPA does not condone racism.” Two days later, news of the proposal to remove the slurs was posted, and since then various threads on the topic have generated more than 1,000 comments. The NASPA advisory board considered the proposal on Thursday night but took no action pending further discussion in the community.

To prepare the list, Chew, the Scrabble association executive, electronically collected words labeled offensive and separated them into seven categories: slur, anatomical, political, profane, prurient, scatological, and vulgar. The proposed deletions would be limited to slurs only—“that is,” he wrote, “words that are used to label someone as being of less value than the speaker based on some innate trait such as gender, race, or sexual orientation.”

The words range from obvious and common aspersions to ones unfamiliar to most people (BOHUNK, HAOLE, CULCHIE) to others they might be surprised to learn have a disparaging meaning (JESUIT, PAPIST). A few don’t always carry a monitory label in dictionaries (GRAYBEARD, JAILBAIT). Some familiar ones didn’t make the list because they have other, inoffensive meanings (BITCH).

In the Scrabble Facebook discussions, the N-word—the only slur in this article that isn’t typed in full—received special attention. Several players suggested it should be the only word removed from the list, on grounds that its calumny exceeds all others. (Merriam-Webster calls it “almost certainly the most offensive and inflammatory racial slur in English, a term expressive of hatred and bigotry.”) Some players wrote that they wouldn’t ever play it in a game. Others held the lexicographic ground: If it qualifies as a word, it’s playable.

Otherwise, the focus of the debate was less on the particular words marked for excision than the place of slurs in the game. Many argued that Scrabble would lose nothing by dropping words that obviously cause offense in real life. Such a move, some players said, might also make the game more attractive to sponsors or broadcasters, and could generate positive media and attract new players. More important, they said, it could be a fitting contribution from a cabal of word nerds to the swirling conversation about race and equality.

“The issue is not censorship,” wrote Tony Leah, a longtime player from Toronto. “The issue is a much stronger commitment to oppose racism.” Marsha Gillis of Texas posted: “If you want to keep these words in the [word list] because one of them might someday be the best play available to you, you need to drop everything and check your privilege.”

But the mention of privilege—reckoning with whether competitive Scrabble players’ “unquestioning acceptance of the worst of the worst ethnic slurs in our book comes from a position of privilege,” as a top player, Chris Lipe of St. Louis, said—led others to ask who exactly was displaying it. “You as a white person don’t get to decide what should be a word,” one expert-level player wrote in response to a comment. “I as a white person don’t get to decide what should be a word.” Another player said that deleting words as a show of tolerance might itself be patronizing. “Speaking as a person of colour,” he wrote, “it actually bothers me that some people seem to be thinking of this expurgation as a ‘magnanimous’ gesture.”

The pool of people commenting on the proposal was self-selecting—the 377 players who belong to a closed Facebook group and approach the game as obsessive insiders. And while the sample size was small, players in the threads from marginalized groups supported leaving the slurs in. One black player, Art Moore of Florida, who has directed Scrabble’s annual national championship tournament, said he wouldn’t be fazed by an opponent “playing the anagram of GINGER.” He argued, by way of analogy, that “the Confederate flag in a museum to instruct about the past means nothing,” whereas “waving the same flag at a BLM protest is something entirely different. Leave the strings of letters alone.”

Marlon Hill, a black expert from Baltimore, wrote in one thread that “it would be patently absurd to pretend such n such letter string does not EXIST.” In another, he said that “yall NEED to STOP PRETENDING/IMAGINING things will get better wif da elimination of a single word—or a THOUSAND words—from da dictionary, a Scrabble lexicon, or even da fuckin language.”

Jason Idalski of Michigan, who is a member of the Scrabble’s group’s advisory board, told me on the phone, “I’m openly gay. It doesn’t matter when an opponent plays FAG or FAGGOT. It does irk me that people are telling me you should be mad when people do this.” A player from Connecticut named Benjamin Bloom, who has cerebral palsy, said he wouldn’t be offended if someone played SPAZ against him. “The spoken word can be offensive,” he told me, but “a random string of tiles on a 15-by-15 Scrabble board should never offend anyone.”

As a practical matter, apart from a few short words, offensive terms get played infrequently, and are noticed by the public even more rarely. But it happens. In 2010, an Ohio newspaper apologized for printing a photo of a board from a tournament that included the word JEWED. (A local synagogue saw the photo and complained; a NASPA spokesperson explained that competitive players “consider these terms ‘playing pieces’ rather than hate speech and don’t want them taken out of competition,” the paper wrote.) When ESPN covered the North American championship for a few years in the 2000s, the rules were bent to avoid obscenities showing up on camera. The two players meeting in the finals were told not to play offensive words. When LEZ was played inadvertently one year, the game was paused and a do-over ordered.

Tournament Scrabble players like those in the NASPA discussion typically make a conscious choice to overlook definitions during the course of a game. This might be a semantic feint, but it reflects how linguists, lexicographers, and wordplay lovers often treat words: as discrete objects to be probed and analyzed both for the meanings humans ascribe to them as well as the properties reflected in their structure and composition—including their strategic value on a playing board.

Banning words from Scrabble didn’t make them disappear from the language when Hasbro cleansed the OSPD 26 years ago, some players argued in the Facebook threads, and it wouldn’t now. Some said that if the slurs are removed, they could receive more attention by virtue of their absence than in their continued presence. “I can’t help reminding all that in The Handmaid’s Tale Scrabble was used to represent the last refuge of liberty of the human mind and the spirit of rebellion against tyranny,” Joel Sherman, a two-time North American champion, wrote. “We should endeavor to protect not the sensitive ears, but the words, of all meanings and connotations.”

In his proposal, Chew noted his mixed ethnicity and said that when he joined a Scrabble club in diverse Toronto in 1993, he was struck by the way players “could ignore their differences on every social axis when absorbed in playing a board game.” But, he wrote, “I am increasingly aware … that no matter how little meaning matters to us when anagramming FORETOP, GINGER, or SOH, it tells others that if they cannot distance themselves from those meanings, we neither value their stories nor welcome them into our community.”

I’ve been playing and writing about tournament Scrabble for more than 20 years, and I have no trouble distancing myself from those meanings. I’m also a straight white man, and deeply immersed in the game. Players attending a club for the first time—or someone reading this article who doesn’t play at all—might not feel the same way. Inside Scrabble, even to some players of color, permitting slurs can feel no different than accepting that ZA is perfectly legit or that OK now meets the criteria for entry. Outside Scrabble, the view can be understandably less nuanced.  

In the Facebook group, Paul Epstein of Michigan, an expert player who has competed in tournaments for nearly 40 years, proposed a compromise that appealed to many: Keep the slurs—but with a warning. At every tournament, and before any game that might wind up before the public, organizers would declare that some offensive words might be played, but that they are “assumed as unintended to be construed within the context of their problematic usages.” In other words, acknowledge the cold reality that language isn’t ever neutral or benign, even in a seemingly innocuous game, while letting players exploit every available string of letters.

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