In the early 1990s, two women were playing Scrabble in suburban Washington, D.C. At one point in the game, a word was challenged. The players decided to settle the dispute by checking the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, Second Edition. However, in skimming the pages, the women stumbled across the word "kike." Understandably, they were appalled. And, in a you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up scenario, one of the two women was a Holocaust survivor.
The pair proceeded to scour the book. To their horror and disappointment, they found not only every possible slur against Jews but those against blacks, Hispanics, Catholics, gays, and any other group one could name.
By the end of this exercise, the women were on a mission. They were going to have these words removed from Scrabble. Their first step was to get in touch with Hasbro, the game’s maker.
I’m not sure whom they talked to that first time, but they were essentially rebuffed by the simple but correct explanation that any word in the dictionary that is not a proper noun is acceptable in Scrabble play. After all, lexicographers cannot pretend a word doesn’t exist just because someone doesn’t like it. Also, however noble the intention, it’s naïve to assume that if a word is removed from any dictionary, it’s going to disappear from the language and conversation.
The dismissal from a Hasbro rep only inflamed the women further. So they took their case to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the powerful and effective organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. As one might imagine, the group was all over the situation.
The ADL quickly fired off a letter to Alan Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO of Hasbro at the time, accusing the company of “playing games with hate.” Hassenfeld, whose family was active in Jewish charities and causes, was in a tough spot, but he knew he had to act quickly. So he replied that Hasbro would remove all offensive words from the OSPD as soon as possible.
Because I was the person in the middle between Hasbro, the media, the dictionary publisher, and the players, the job fell to me and the NSA staff to both orchestrate this process and communicate progress to all those entities. The initial phone call went something like this.
“John, we need you to take all the offensive words out of the Scrabble dictionary.”
“Which ones?” I asked, not joking.
“You know,” the Hasbro exec continued, “all the usual curse words, body parts, racial and religious slurs, that kind of stuff.”
He made it sound so simple. But I knew better. For openers, the mid-1990s was perhaps the zenith of the political correctness movement, when, it could be argued, people sometimes went overboard in trying to do or say the correct thing.
My favorite example of this was the case in January 1999 of a Washington, D.C., political aide, David Howard, who was quoted in the press as saying something about the need to be more “niggardly” in the management of certain city funds. "Niggardly," of course, is an old English word, admittedly obscure, defined as “grudgingly mean about spending.”
However, there was a rush to judgment because the word sounded like what we refer to as “the N-word.” In fact, it seemed the guy was having his resignation accepted before anyone could even open a dictionary. And when someone finally did, it was too late. Attempts to explain the real meaning were cumbersome and ineffective, as people were already too agitated. The rationale then seemed to me to waver to this: the guy should have lost his job for bad judgment—selecting a word that sounded too much like an offensive term. Finally, reason prevailed; he was rehired by the mayor’s office.
So, accompanied by my NSA colleague Joe Edley, I began the dubious quest to find every despicable word in the English language to appease the Hasbro attorneys, the Anti-Defamation League, and anyone else who thought or hoped a word was going to disappear from use and the language simply by being removed from a game-related dictionary. We were aware as we began that this task was a bizarre blend of dangerous, silly, pointless, and futile. Worse, for me, was that it pitted my job requirements against my strong personal belief in free speech. Ah, the classic American dilemma, choosing between one’s job and the Constitution.
Some of the considerations were complicated. For example, the words pansy, chick, dick, faggot, bitch, homo, and the like are all hateful slurs, but they all have alternative, harmless meanings. So these words survived the cut with the offensive definition deleted.
The word motherfucker was discussed, but was not part of the assignment because the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary only goes up to eight-letter words. (Over 90 percent of all Scrabble plays are eight letters or fewer.) But the conversation about the word reminded us of a famous story that came out of a Tennessee Scrabble club back in the 1980s.
As the story went, a young man in his thirties was beginning a game against woman in her eighties. His absolute best opening play was the word shitty. He stared at the word on his rack, then at the sweet face and carefully coiffed white hair of his opponent. He agonized. He looked back at her face, back at his rack. He just couldn’t play the word. Instead, the young man made a much safer play for far fewer points. But he had no doubt he’d done the right thing. Across the board, the older woman studied his opening play for a minute or so. Then she threw down the word fuckers for 80-something points, shrugged, and happily wrote down her score.
This story gets to one of the key points of this entire issue. In Scrabble, words are simply game pieces. Expert players often know thousands of words for which they do not know—nor are they required to know—the meaning. As both "Word Freak" author Stefan Fatsis and Will Shortz, New York Times crossword puzzle editor, have stated to me: in Scrabble, meanings are meaningless.
Obviously, this situation flies in the face of all cultural and linguistic standards. We learn early in life that all words do in fact have meaning and, at times, the attendant power. Words are—or at least should be—chosen with care for reasons of emphasis, sensitivity, clarity, and desired impact. So the concept of them being “meaningless” is both disconcerting and anti-intuitive, even just for the sake of playing a game.
But I digress. Our search continued. In addition to all the naughty words we could think of, we asked our colleagues at Merriam-Webster, the country’s foremost lexicographers, to send us a list of every word that had a designation in their files as vulgar, profane, racist, a religious or ethnic slur, and the like. It goes without saying, the editors at Merriam-Webster were appalled that we were even doing this.
Some of their words were amusing. Did you know that papist (a Roman Catholic) and jesuit (a scheming person) are considered religious slurs? I can’t say I’ve seen either used that way in my lifetime, perhaps scrawled somewhere on a church wall by a hate-filled graffiti artist. However, both words were used in a derogatory manner against Roman Catholics—depicting them as enemies of the Church of England—as far back as the early sixteenth century.
There were others, equally absurd or obscure. In all, we came up with about 175 allegedly offensive candidates. We submitted them to Hasbro for review. Our memo covered both our collective asses and two fundamental points: the list was by nature incomplete, and offensiveness is nothing if not subjective. It’s like humor; one person’s double entendre is another person’s banana peel.
Later, a senior Hasbro Games division executive tried to grandstand at a meeting, proudly announcing we had overlooked the word tup. When asked its meaning, he preened, “It means to have sex with a sheep.”
I waited a minute for the room to absorb this information. I finally spoke. “Yes, I know the word. It means for a ram to have sex with a ewe, not a couple of drunken farm boys. It’s a veterinary term.”
The Offensive-Word story went viral, and within a week the story broke nationally in the publishing column in the New York Daily News written by veteran journalist Paul Colford. I was just leaving an associate’s office at MTV Networks, where I was working on a writing project, when his assistant shoved a handful of those pink message slips at me. They read: John, call NBC News; John, the Wall Street Journal is trying to make a deadline, call ASAP; John, can you do an interview for CNN for the 6 o’clock news; John, the Miami Herald style section editor needs a photo-call immediately; and whatever you do, John, please call your office FIRST—they are swamped with more calls.
After a couple of conference calls, Merriam-Webster, Hasbro, and I agreed that I would be the only official spokesperson on the issue. It had also been decided—not by me—that I would not be allowed to disclose any specific word that was going to be eliminated from Scrabble. You can imagine how that went over with journalists.
As a writer myself, I understood the idiocy and frustration of it all for them. Here was an explosive story on any number of levels, yet the press was not given access to the newly created offensive-word list. So they and I were reduced to a silly dance along the lines of “Okay, Mr. Williams. How about I say a word and you can tell me whether or not it will be banned from Scrabble. Can you at least do that?”
So they wrote the stories anyway—scores of them—guessing at the banned words or suggesting readers simply use their imaginations.
Personally, the worst part of this experience was that somehow it became assumed that I was not only the individual who decided to remove “offensive” words fromScrabble play, but also the one in charge of selecting those words. That’s when the fecal matter really hit the fan.
I began to receive letters and phone calls from all over the world.
* A man from Wales insisted that the word "welsh" be removed because it had the same connotation as "jew" used as a verb.
* In the same vein, I received an impassioned letter from a gentleman who identified himself as the official United Nations delegate representing the 1.1 million Romani (Gypsies) in North America. He asked that the word gyp (to swindle)—similar in meaning to "jew" and "welsh"—be removed as it was a slur against his constituents. His letter was accompanied by several pages of data, which theoretically proved Romani were the most maligned race in the world in regards to ethnic prejudice. Who knew?
* An Irishman lobbied for removal of the word paddywagon, as its origin was something like “a small truck filled with drunken Irishmen.” Of course, paddywagon wasn’t even in the Scrabble dictionary because it was more than eight letters.
* An ardent feminist demanded that the word history be removed as it was blatantly sexist. Happily, the word herstory was added to the Scrabble dictionary a few years later. Ourstory perhaps waits in the wings for future admission.
* A pacifist wrote, “I consider war and gun to be the two most dangerous words in the English language and respectfully request they be considered for deletion.” Being a pacifist, he did not demand, insist, or threaten.
* Finally, in the mail came this. “I deplore what you are doing, Mr. Williams. I will find you and rectify this injustice.” We called postal authorities and the FBI on that one. Remarkably, the sender had left a legitimate return address on the letter. Now that’s commitment.
This entire exercise proved what I had said from the initial conversation, when I was charged with removing the offensive words from the Scrabble dictionary. Which ones?
When the dust finally settled on all this, a couple of things happened. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary was revised as the Third Edition in 1995 with approximately 175 words removed. However, in a compromise enacted by the NSA, all words remained allowable in official club and tournament play in the United States and Canada. This was the genesis of the OWL, which had all the words but, as per the agreement with Hasbro, no definitions. It was available only to members of the National Scrabble Association. We, after all, were trained word professionals and would not let them fall into the wrong hands.
For educational purposes only, I’ve included the notorious word list in the appendix. I suspect you’ll be turning there now.
At the end of it all, only one tournament player I know of resigned from the NSA. He returned about a decade later. He assured me, after one day back at the National Scrabble Championship, that it was “as gloriously crazy as ever.” He was right. You can screw around with the words, but the people will prevail.
Excerpted from "Word Nerd: Dispatches From the Games, Grammar and Geek Underground" by John D. Williams Jr. Published by Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by John D. Williams Jr. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.