How the Grid Kid Became King of the Online Spelling Bee

Listen to this episode

S1: Hello, I’m Nicole Holliday, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania,

S2: and I’m Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

S1: And this is spectacular vernacular, a podcast where we not only explore language,

S2: we also play with it.

S1: This week, we’re going all in on the wordplay because our special guest is none other than Sam Ezersky, a.k.a. a good kid as digital puzzles editor for The New York Times. Sam is responsible for The New York Times spelling bee. A word game. I know all too well.

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, Nicole, like a lot of our listeners, I’m guessing you get a little obsessive about solving The New York Times spelling bee every day. What are some of your strategies for making words out of those seven letters that you get every day?

S1: One trick I use is to piece together common sequences of two letters or three letters and build from there. The technical term for those two and three letters sequences are Bagram’s and Trigrams.

S2: Oh, right. So if there was like an R and an E in the letters that you get in the B, you might immediately start looking for words that start with R E or end with E R. Since those are both extremely common Bagram’s.

Advertisement

S1: Exactly. It’s interesting how our brains operate when we’re trying to retrieve words like that from our memories. Of course, a word game like the spelling bee is kind of an unnatural use of language. But even in our everyday linguistic encounters, we’re always looking for patterns like that. Often by chunking smaller units together, whether those units are letters, sounds or words.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Yeah. And, you know, some some word games, especially ones like Scrabble or words with friends, they reward knowledge of extremely rare by Grande’s and trigrams like, you know, words where Q is followed by a vowel other than you. So if you’re a serious Scrabble player, you need to know your G and your gut. And she spelled Q. There’s, of course, the body’s vital energy in Chinese philosophy. And Kott spelled Q a t. Well, that’s the word from Arabic. That’s the name of a shrub whose leaves are a mild stimulant when chewed or drunk in tea.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So we’ve given you some free Scrabble words today. Those are some unusual letter combinations, at least in the English spelling system. One new game, though, focuses on making words out of the kinds of by Gamze and Trigrams you’d more typically see. It’s a card game called Rewritable, and it was actually designed using statistical analysis and computer simulations to make the discovery of words in the game as rewarding as possible.

S2: Yeah, that that sounds like it might be kind of fun, actually. And another fun combination of programming and wordplay that I’ve seen lately is a spin on Scrabble called Blab Wrex that’s spelled Biella, b, r, e, c, s. And that’s an anagram of Scrabble, in case you were wondering. So Blab Brex was designed by Max Krzeminski, and it swaps out the real dictionary words that you could play in Scrabble. And it only allows you to play nonsense words that seem plausible to an artificial intelligence system. It turns out you can train an eye the same way that our own brains learn to recognize letter patterns like those by grammes and trigrams we were talking about. And the eye can identify words that seem like they could be legitimate in English, but are totally fake.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, that sounds kind of evil and difficult, but I like it. So you can just type in a nonsense word and blab. Brex will tell you if the A.I. approves.

S2: Yeah, actually, I’ve got the page open right now. So say I type in. Let’s try. And Scoble meant a word that I just made up and it says, looks good to me.

S1: There you go. OK, try this one community.

S2: Spell that for me, please.

S1: C o m i r and a t y.

S2: Sorry. The i says no way. That’s a word. OK, wait, Nicole, what what have you got me spelling here? Exactly.

S1: Community, in case you hadn’t heard, is the official name of Pfizer is Covid vaccine, which just got its full FDA approval. And as soon as they made the announcement, that name became the talk of linguistics. Twitter, because it’s not good.

Advertisement

S2: Oh, right. Community. Now, I remember it. Yeah. That struck a lot of people as an unfortunate choice of branding. I mean, it seems. Well, meaning I guess it’s supposed to evoke a bunch of words, Covid and community and immunity. And there’s Mirani stuck in the middle of it. But the end result just looks and sounds kind of off.

S1: Ben, you said it community, but I said it community. Are you tied to that pronunciation?

S2: And how do they want us to say it? Is it community? Community, I guess. You know, we could go either way.

S1: Yeah. Let’s see what the what the late night hosts are doing.

S3: What’s up with community in? Did the approval catch Pfizer

Advertisement

S2: so off guard that they yelled out a name before they were ready? Diebold come Bernini.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So it looks like Seth Meyers agrees with me. Community.

S2: Got it. Community.

S1: Late night host Seth Meyers weren’t the only ones having fun with this odd new brand name. Lisa Davidson, a professor of phonetics at NYU. My alma mater, wrote a great piece last week as part of Sleets Partnership with Future Tense, all about the linguistic weirdness of community and how people have reacted to it. She says her initial reaction was that it feels like sticky peanut butter in the mouth. But she says she started to root for it despite its awkwardness. I definitely find it awkward to pronounce and spell for one thing. Why not just spell it? I t y at the end like community and immunity.

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, I guess they really just wanted that are in a trigram in there. But you know what? If you spell it c o m i r and I t y and you put that into blab wrex like I’m doing now, the I think that looks good.

S1: There you go. I mean, we could devote a whole episode to the bizarre world of pharmaceutical brand names, but let’s save that for another time.

S2: Yeah, but you know, I just want to know, how did Pfizer come up with that name for their rheumatoid arthritis drug, Xeljanz? Have you seen that? ACLJ, ANZ.

S1: Well, that would be an awesome where it played Scrabble so many points.

Advertisement

S2: Oh, right, yeah. I mean, you get the X, the J, the Z using all seven letters, so many points. That would be awesome. Anyway, we will be back with our guest, Sam Ezersky, after the break. There’s so many different words embedded in this name is Give me flashbacks

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: to yesterday’s

S2: New York Times spelling bee. I was one word away from Jesus. You tell me I’m this tall. Screw you, spelling bee. I’m going back to Ken.

S1: Welcome back to Spectacular Vernacular. Our guest today is Sam Ezersky, digital puzzle’s editor for The New York Times. Sam works with Will Shortz and the rest of the crossword staff at the Times’ to edit the puzzles that appear every day. But the job he’s perhaps best known for is overseeing an extremely popular online game from the Times’. The Spelling Bee. The spelling bee has become a bit of an obsession for a lot of people over the past few years, including myself. I play it every day with my partner, and as a result, I am totally vanderlyn out about this interview. Welcome, Sam.

Advertisement

S3: So great to be here. Nicole Ben, thanks so much for having me. I am. I’m still really surprised about, you know, all the success of the spelling bee as well. So it’s a thrill to hear, you know, you and all these others that are playing it and really enjoying it and having as much fun as you all are having.

S2: Excellent. Well, we’re really happy to have you on, Samin. Full disclosure, I’ve known Sam for a while. I’ve gotten to know him through crossword circles for a few years now. And even before that, I remember hearing about this college kid down at the University of Virginia who was already blowing people’s minds with his crossword puzzles. So, Sam, you got published in the Times’ and other publications as a teenager. And I remember you had your own Endi puzzle blog called The Grid Kid. So what is the origin story for the grid kid?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: I have been interested in will say crossword specific puzzles for as long as I can remember at this point. The story I like to tell is I must have been about five or six years old and there was waiting in a haircutter, I think it was there was a magazine that was opened with a half completed fill it in puzzle. The grid is just like a crossword. But instead of clues, it’s a list of all the answers that fit into the grid, alphabetized by length. It was love at first sight, you guys. I actually I recall picking this thing up and finishing the puzzle. And it was off to the races. And specifically, I was interested in just all these interlocking words, just how they all came together. This fun letter blends and patterns. And I’m a very left brain person. So I was always just fascinated by how these things actually worked. So solved a bunch of fill it ins all through my childhood, progressed to crossword puzzles and The New York Times crossword, and then started actually deciding at some point in high school that I would take the semi seriously and try sending some to the Times’ and who knew where it would get me. And I’m grateful to be here. On the other side now.

S1: That’s awesome. So then after college in twenty seventeen, you get hired by the Times’ as an assistant puzzles editor, and the following year they put you in charge of a new game they’re introducing on the Times’ website, the spelling bee. It’s really seemingly 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 a central 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?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: So for context, this game was actually adopted from the print spelling bee, which has been around since I believe, 2014 or 2015. And still today appears weekly in the Sunday Times magazine, under completely different curation by a guy named Frank Longo, another grizzled veteran in the puzzle world that Ben here knows as well. But so Spelling Bee was then adopted for digital for the Times’ in May of twenty eighteen. And right off the bat, you know, people that were longtime puzzle solvers were familiar with the spelling bee game because they had solved the Sunday crossword in the magazine or just knew to expect this puzzle. The rules were simple enough, but I would say the major, major following really came around the start of the pandemic. It was a steady stream of people becoming more and more interested in this, you know, quirky word game that was easy enough to pick up and also easy enough to become super avid about. But I’d say it’s really in this last year that it’s just absolutely taken off. And wherever I look, somebody is playing the spelling bee and I’m like, wow, you too. You’re a pretty cool person. This is awesome.

S2: Yeah, it’s amazing. I mean, they call it the hive mind, but it’s really just kind of grown into epic proportions, like you say, since the pandemic. And you’ve gotten a lot of love already from the Slate family. The novelist Laura Lippman wrote a piece for Slate last year about her spelling bee obsession. And you’ve already been a guest on Slate’s Culture Gabfest. It’s really interesting just seeing on Twitter this, you know, the global hive mind that just never lets up. And then you also now the Times’ has launched a daily discussion forum just for spelling bee fans. And they have their own lingo when they’re talking about it. So, I mean, what is it like being responsible for something that attracts such a diehard community?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: It’s so rewarding. It is exhilarating to be able to hear from so many people, people with all sorts of walks of life, people with all sorts of different affinities for word games or puzzles in general. There might be someone I’ve heard from that I hear from every day who’s clearly, you know, some just. Spert, wordsmith, pointing out this of this crazy Scrabble word that I probably couldn’t allow to these, you know, the newer sorts that are just like, oh, hey, I didn’t know that Queen Bee existed. What’s this all about? Why don’t you all post the queen bee score? Now, I’m never going to put this thing down. It’s definitely feels like there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders. There’s a ton of responsibility. I’m one person shaping a one size fits all wordlist for everybody, which in itself is going to be arbitrary is the biggest. Critics say it’s of course it’s arbitrary, but I really have such a blast doing this. I take all the feedback I get to heart because I feel like that is part of my role, except for the negative. Charles, you guys, I’m on the lookout for this. I could never have expected this. I really did not know that this was going to blossom into such a subculture with such an ardent following. And I, you know, just get to participate in this now as well.

S1: OK, so 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 of the possible words achieving queen bee status. And it’s important to note that you don’t actually know how many possible words there are when you’re going for Queen Bee. So sometimes I’ve gotten to genius and Ben, like, should I keep going? It could be five more words or it could be twenty five more words. And it’s like midnight. And I don’t know if I can 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?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: Yeah, so the million dollar question. Right. So a lot of the calls are pretty easy, honestly, for the most part. I’d say one thing I wish people knew more about my job is that even though the word list is a binary. Yes. In the word list or no, it’s not in the word list. There are tons and tons and tons of close calls. And anybody editing this game, you know, can have their own personal like this barely gets by or this barely misses the cut. And it’s really just my actual methodology is just through 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, but so I’ll go digging around, literally digging around to research my plants, basically. And I’ll do this from a very high level. I’ll see if this gets a lot of news coverage. I’ll see if. Well, first of all, if this word is literally listed in every major dictionary that I use at my disposal, which primarily are Miriam Webster and the Mac Dictionary, which I believe riff’s ofthe New Oxford American, ultimately, it just comes down to my guiding question is what feels fair to our wide ranging audience? I don’t want to snub those where this is really it’s a word that is so common to their background or life style 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 that know everything. So ultimately, it’s an arbitrary call. And I just continue to shape this be based off what people say.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah. And relatedly, I was wondering if there’s a specific criteria you use for how difficult the puzzle can be. So as a player, I have seen combos of letters that allow for hundreds of options and some that allow for just a few dozen. And some of the words are really hard, especially just to get the pan gram, which is like the one with all of the letters that we are always trying to achieve. So a few weeks ago, the pen gram was imbroglio. I don’t even know if I’m saying that word right. I’m sure this was controversial. And I was using my linguist skills, trying to try out the combinations of letters probabilistically used to like doing biographies and diagrams 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 in graffito. So how do you decide what’s the within bounds in terms of difficulty?

S3: What I found so interesting about that one is that that Pande Graham was so difficult and so hard to see, to even stitch together a few letters and then sort of build on tack on the remaining ones. But all the other words in the wordlist, I believe, were six letters or fewer and were very, very, very straightforward. I believe that that was a lucky day for me. I don’t believe there was a single marginal line judge call here, as I was referencing earlier. But that program was wicked, right? Fully expected a lot of people to really struggle on that pan, Graham or even some people. I was willing to bet that there would be some people that would find every last word but the pan grab until the next day. I usually try and avoid that, though, to be honest. And so a hard puzzle in my mind is I try and make the puzzle hard, primarily through the actual answers in the puzzle, especially the longer ones that are worth more. Points rather than the pan gram itself. I thought imbroglio was fair, but really pushing it on difficulty for the pan grandma lwn. I like keeping the Pan Graham as accessible as possible. I actually have a particularly high bar with the Pan Graham alone versus the rest of the wordlist, because that is the lynchpin of the puzzle, right? That’s that is the part that there are some solvers that won’t even begin solving the rest of their puzzle until they find their pain grams. So I recognize the importance of that. It’s also worth so many points. If you’re not finding the pan gram, it’s going to be really hard to gain progress. It’s really based off, you know, the longer bonus words in the wordless, which are worth so many points. I think a puzzle can be really difficult if a lot of those longer words are pretty tough as far as vocabulary goes, or somewhat elusive based on the, you know, the formation of prefixes, suffixes, Bagram’s trigrams, etcetera.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: But it’s interesting, like regardless of how hard the pan gram is or whatever. If you go on Twitter and you check out the whole hive mind discourse. Yeah. Regardless of whether it was an easy day or a difficult day, there’s always so much chatter about every little thing about white. Why was this word accepted? Why was this word I’ve never heard of accepted? You’ve been at this for a few years now. Do you just ignore all of that chatter or are you actually going in there and looking for that constructive criticism about how you might shape your word list and say, oh, yeah, OK, that was a judgment call to keep it out? Maybe I should put that in.

S3: 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 no, I mean, the feedback’s important. Right. And it’s also that’s part of the fiber of this game, is that everybody. And the irony of of the role that I am in is because everybody has their own personal lexicon at the end of the day. Everybody has their own. Well, why this word? But not that word to some degree, whether you are an expert solver or heck, even my mom and dad have come to me gone like really? You know how this one and I’m like, oh, no, you guys aren’t even like the heavy with the diehards that are that I hear from the most here. So this game really trickles down to everybody in that sense. My role especially is just being the sole person behind this. I don’t want to be I have been called, you know, a gatekeeper or a czar, if you will. That is not my goal, even if that’s just, you know, part of what comes with the game. I want to be leading the hashtag hive mind and shaping this game based off really what I hear. I think it’s it’s really important to take that stuff to heart and into consideration in future puzzles. Nobody outright gets ignored. I just I just might disagree at the end of the day.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: So, you know, the spelling bee gets all of this attention. And I think I mean, I know that you do lots of other things and you know, the the wordplay world. Is there anything, you know, a puzzle or something else you’ve worked on lately that you’re particularly proud of that’s not at all related to the spelling bee?

S3: I joke that I have an awful work life balance, which is only amplified between, you know, and being unable to not check my Twitter and see all the verifications. Basically, I’m always working on crosswords in my free time. There’s some idea of percolating. There’s some interesting wordplay find that I’m going to try and make a crossword around or even even just like other variety games. I know just at the Times’ during working hours. Right. So I edit the crosswords, too, as one of Will Shortz is assistants are one of the people in the editorial team. I also curate the word game letter box so that the Times’ offers. Also, there’s this other game. It is a connect the dots style picture game called Vertex. And I actually write the funny captions for that, too. So those are just some other some other hats I wear throughout the week. We do some one offs. I know my colleague Joel Foligno and I and you know as well, we did some interesting Olympic’s themed collection of games for the NYT sports page that came out a few weeks ago. That was a fun success. I believe it only actually ran in print, otherwise I’d I’d pass along a link, but otherwise just a bunch of crosswords and just interesting wordplay finds are really thinking about, you know, what I can actually do to shape the spelling bee better. I don’t know.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: Thanks, Sam. After the break, it’s time for us to get into some of our own Wordplay. Welcome back. Now it’s the time when we invite a listener on to play with language.

S1: This time we’re very happy to have with us the winner of a previous Wordplay quiz. Brian Lapinski of Washington. He’s my neighbor. Brian won the contest from our August third episode, figuring out that Fats Waller is an anagram of Waterfall’s. Also the hit song by TLC. Brian, I happen to know you’re an old hand at quizzing, is that right?

S4: That’s true, Nicole. Yeah. So thank you for having me. I host a pub quiz here in D.C. and I also go to crossword tournaments and all that sort of nerdy wordplay fun. So you are very into the quizzing and the word play games.

S1: OK, so both quizzing and wordplay, your double threat, which is great because you’ll need to use your skills in both of those areas for the quiz we have for you. So earlier in this episode, we heard from Sam Ezersky, who’s in charge of The New York Times spelling bee. And we thought we’d give you a challenge inspired by the spelling bee.

S2: That’s right. So in The New York Times spelling bee, you get seven letters that you rearrange into words, repeating the letters if necessary, if you figure out a pen gram in the spelling bee. That means you use all seven letters you’re given, but some letters can be repeated. So the spelling bee doesn’t let you use names. But we’re going to break that rule here in this quiz. We’re going to ask you to name some American actresses and their full names can be formed out of seven letter words, spelling bee style for each question. We’re going to give you a clue for an actress. And somewhere in that clue will be a seven letter word that you can use to form the actress’s name. You just tell us the name of the actress and the seven letter word you used to form it. So here’s an example. This actress in Lady Bird and Little Women never got to promote her performances on the Arsenio Hall Show.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And the actress’s first name is Seven Letters Long. And her last name is five letters.

S4: OK, so never got to thinking the word might be Arsenio that I’m supposed to be looking for

S1: here on the right track,

S4: because that seems a little out of place. So seven letters, five letters, Lady Bird and little women. I can only think of Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird

S1: as the daughter. Do you happen to know her name?

S4: Oh, it’s

S1: she was also the little girl in Atonement, I

S4: think. Sure. So running Shusha run in

S1: search of Ronan. Yeah. So the seven letter word in that case was Arsenio and repeating letters. You can use that to make her full name. Sure, Ronan. Here comes another one. You won’t find this actress playing the lead role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo anymore, since she’s moved on to other projects.

S4: OK, so a seven letter word in that sentence.

S1: So the actress is more. Yeah, the actress’s first name is Six Letters and her last name is Spor.

S4: OK, so I think any more is the word. I’m trying to pull letters from here. I think I might have it did not see that movie, but I think she’s someone who also has a sister who acts. I think it’s a Rooney Mara.

S1: Yes, Rooney Mara. I think that. Wow, I would never have done that. Come up with that.

S2: Well done. OK, here’s the next one. No connoisseur of choreography ignores this actress’s renowned dancing routines in movies with Fred Astaire.

S4: OK, so there was dancing with seven letters in that and ignores with seven letters. And so I think Ignores is the one that I’m going to be pulling from. Right track. So Fred Astaire. Yeah, he had one very famous partner. So I think I think I’ve got this one.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yes. I feel confident that you can do this. What do you think?

S4: Yeah, it’s Ginger Rogers.

S1: Yes. And the only reason I know that is because of Vogue by Madonna. OK, Brian, here’s the last one for you. And it is a toughie. This actress’s first role was Central Park singer in the 1979 movie Hair before she found fame on the 80s sitcom. Give me a break.

S4: OK. She was here and then give me a break. Let’s see, there was central was seven letters in that sentence.

S1: Go that way.

S4: Yeah, OK. Yeah. So someone with vocal talents and acting talents, I think I have a pretty solid guess on this one.

S1: I’m genuinely amazed if you get this right.

S4: What do you think? It’s Nell Carter right now.

S1: Carter. So, yes, the seven letter word was essential. And the actresses. Nell Carter.

S4: Awesome.

S2: Wow. Great work, Bryan. And now we have a final challenge for all the listeners out there. See if you can figure this one out. This actress has been nominated for four Oscars with Hilary Swank beating her out for the award twice. Think you got it? Send your answers to us spectacular at Slate dot com with quiz in the subject line of your email. Please include the seven letter word and the actress’s name that can be formed from those letters from the correct entries. We’ll randomly select a winner who will get a slate plus membership for one year. Or if you’re already a slate plus member, you’ll get a one year extension on your subscription. And we may bring you on the show to face a new Wordplay challenge. So let me repeat the clue. This actress has been nominated for four Oscars with Hilary Swank beating her out for the award twice. Please send your answer to Spectacular at late Ekom with quiz in the subject line by midnight Eastern Time on September 8th. And we’re very pleased to announce the winner of the contest from our previous episode, Schmuel Smell figured out. The word namesake contains the city names Aimes and Mesa. So congratulations, Shmuel.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Thanks for joining us, Brian.

S4: Oh, thank you so much fun.

S1: That’s it for this week. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and you’ll never miss an episode. And please consider subscribing to Slate. Plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like full access to all the articles on sitcom zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Big Mooed, Little Mooed with Daniel and Labrie. It’s only one dollar for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate dot com slash spectacular plus.

S2: And thank you to the grid kid Sam Ezersky for being our guest this week. Spectacular Vernacular is produced by Jasmine Ellis. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Gabriel Roth is editorial director for Slate podcast.

S1: We’ll be back in two weeks with more spectacular vernacular. Thanks for listening.