In a 2012 interview, top-flight Canadian Scrabble player Robin Pollock Daniel let a bit of light in on what the game is really all about: “Words are involved but, to me at least, it’s more about math,” she told The Star. “You don’t have to know what the word means, but you do have to know that it’s an acceptable configuration.”

Daniel’s interview was cited two years later by The Guardian’s Stephen Moss in an article about playing Scrabble at the highest levels.

“Scrabble is not for people who love words and language; it’s for people who like patterns. The secret is not to make an inspiring word — LAMBENT, LAGOON and LISSOM (what a waste of the S) won’t get you very far in Scrabble,” he wrote. “Ridiculous little words used in combination on high-scoring squares will.

“As Daniel says, it’s a spatial game more than a semantic one, which explains why many of the world’s top players hail from Thailand. They concentrate on structures rather than meanings. Indeed, it has been argued that speaking English is a disadvantage in top-flight Scrabble, where the true champion relies on a battery of memorized pseudo-words.”

All of this explains why, at those lofty levels, the game still contains racial, ethnic and sexual slurs. Now, they’re slated to be gone — even as some players who the slurs are aimed at don’t necessarily think they should be expurgated.

According to a Tuesday piece by David Waldstein in The New York Times, the North American Scrabble Players Association will ban 226 words that many would find offensive. The words had been axed from the regular players’ dictionary back in 1994.

However, at the highest levels, where words are little more than building blocks, they’re still in there. In fact, competitive players of all stripes had lobbied to keep them the dictionary at the time, which led to the compromise that meant the competitive Scrabble community would be able to keep the old dictionary.

Perhaps not anymore. On Tuesday, Hasbro — the toy-making giant which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America — says the NASPA has “agreed to remove all slurs from their word list for Scrabble tournament play, which is managed solely by NASPA and available only to members.”

“Technically, Hasbro has no control over the 192,111 playable words on the word list used by the players’ association, but it does license the organization to use the name Scrabble, and it is not eager to see slurs associated with its brand. It said it was committed to ‘providing an experience that is inclusive and enjoyable for all,’” The Times reported.

“We may be split quite evenly as a community about what we should do, but that is because we have insulated ourselves from the rest of the world, clinging to the notion that our use of words is privileged,” NASPA CEO John Chew said in a statement. “The world has moved on past us, and as more than 90% of our outside poll respondents told us, it is time for us to catch up or be left behind.

“As has been reported in the media, during our meeting with Hasbro, I personally agreed with them that all the slurs should come out of our lexicon. It’s the right thing to do, and I will make sure that it happens. I have asked the Advisory Board to vote their consciences, because I think this is an important moment in the history of our association. Everyone should know how their board represented them on this weighty issue.”

Now, let’s be clear: These aren’t just a few questionable words. In fact, there are very few I can write here without censoring them.

“Baldie” and “fatso” are two of them. So are “abortuary” and “comsymp” (an “abortuary” is defined by the Scrabble-meisters at Merriam-Webster as “a place where abortions are performed — used as a term of contempt by opponents of abortion” and a comsymp is a communist sympathizer, so I think we can tell where everyone’s sympathies lay here. For the record, I’m down with both and plan to work them into conversation this week.)

However, a goodly portion of the words are unusable in everyday conversation. Some of them clearly aren’t workplace friendly and some of them are a good bit worse.

There are anti-Semitic slurs, racial slurs, ethnic slurs, national slurs. And yes, even that word is there — that contemptible six-letter anti-black slur and all of its offshoots. (A complete list is here, with the words scrambled. If you want to put them in a word de-scrambler, you can find out what the words are — although I warn you, this is graphic language. Reader discretion is advised.)

This is, in other contexts, vile stuff.

The problem is decontextualizing the decontextualization of these words. In Scrabble, they’re not linguistic constructs. They’re ways to score points. and there are plenty of people within the Scrabble community — including those who the slurs are aimed at — who want to keep them.

Steven Alexander, a white, Jewish man who argued to keep the words back in the 1990s, says he’s now willing to get rid of some of the more obvious offenders.

“The one word that has actually been used to rally mobs into terrorism is the N-word,” he said. “It’s a word of conspiracy, a tool of oppression. If Black people demand something, a white person like me shouldn’t necessarily put their views first.”

And there are black players who oppose removing any of the words.

“If I’m going to lose the game playing a different word, then I’m going to use that word,” said Noel Livermore, a black player from Florida. “I need to score points and on that board, they don’t have any meaning.”

He called Scrabble “a numbers game disguised as a word game.”

The best quote in the piece belongs to Columbia University linguistics professor John McWhorter.

His take was that it should be the black players deciding on the words — because if it wasn’t, it was basically white people “testifying to their goodness as anti-racists.” He also came up with a reasonable compromise involving using asterisk tiles so that people didn’t have to stare at a slur on the board.

For those of you who can stomach the Notorious NYT, I encourage you to read Waldstein’s piece, which is probably the best explication of the issue I’ve seen out there.

It manages to come close-ish to the heart of the issue without judging the players who want to keep the words in. It still neglects the key objection to removing these words right now, however.

In one sense, they’re words. They may not be words we like, but they’re words. For the last quarter-century, the game of hardcore Scrabble has continued to develop with these words in the equation.

The NASPA has decided, with no small degree of felicitousness, that this is the time to take them out. However, in another sense, they’ve been entirely decontextualized here.

And McWhorter is right; this isn’t much more than people “testifying to their goodness as anti-racists.” The dictionary doesn’t change much and the words carry the weight they always have, at least in a modern context.

All that’s changed is the moment. Even then, this accomplishes very little, forcing competitive Scrabble players to learn which words they can’t use.

If that’s progress, it’s certainly a very odd version of it.

Author: C. Douglas Golden

Source: Western Journal: Words Now Being Axed by Scrabble Association To Avoid Offending Anyone

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