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We Can All Agree That Scrabble Is for Psychos

Tournament players were resistant to taking racial slurs off the table — because in their game, words are meaningless

I come from a Scrabble family. Or, I should say, from Scrabble parents — I don’t get the sense my siblings like the game that much. Typically, it’s played on summer evenings, after the sizzling heat and a couple of drinks have somewhat reduced our collective brainpower. Still, it gets fiercely competitive, and when a fight breaks out over a play or rule, nobody will back down.

I didn’t fully realize what Scrabble brought out in me until I tried it with my girlfriend, Maddie, and got super frustrated trying to explain why this or that move wasn’t allowed, or how to tally up bonus tiles. I’m not an angry person by nature, but something about this pastime turns me into a hostile dick. Is it the prescriptivism that comes with relying on a dictionary as referee? I bet so!

Anyway, about that dictionary… 

Now, it must be noted that there are different authorities on viable words for Scrabble. You or I might make do with the Merriam-Webster Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, which had offensive words and slurs removed in 1994 (and continues to be updated with this objective in mind). However, Scrabbleheads playing at the tournament level — where the already dire tension of the game is turned up to a frightening extreme — rely on reference texts like the  North American Scrabble Players Association’s Word List, which until this week encompassed far more eye-popping terms, up to and including the N-word.

The idea of playing a vile racial slur in competition, maybe even while facing a non-white opponent, is shocking to most of us. But the technical abidance of such moves is a glimpse into the psychosis of top-tier Scrabble.

The fact is, you don’t become a Scrabble champion by memorizing definitions — you win by memorizing spellings. The meanings of words are just excess baggage, because they don’t factor into the score. There’s no bonus for particularly refined vocabulary. In a game supposedly centered on language, this is kind of… twisted. And it helps to explain why apparently quite a few NASPA members argued for their right to use the N-word, as well as other racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic and body-shaming epithets: Of some 1,000 “heartfelt responses” to a poll conducted by the organization, about half were against the revision. Some people replied with “white supremacist screeds,” and some members “threatened to leave the association if a single word were removed,” the group noted in a statement.

Sounds extreme.

The philosophical sticking point (at least for those who aren’t openly professing their bigotry) is that for the purposes of a professional Scrabble matchup, the referents of words do not exist. Instead, words are held in a vacuum apart from their usage and sometimes vicious connotations. Therefore, it’s impossible to be offended by a swear or a slur in this setting. Except the only reason those words are playable in the first place is because they arose in the cultural lexicon, since they do mean something — and that something can be as toxic as the entire legacy of American racism.

You can’t really separate the N-word from its role in dehumanization and hate if you refuse to engage with its history (as, for example, a hip-hop artist might). Declaring it somehow null within the world of Scrabble is just preposterous.

And wait, there’s more!

The weirdest part of the letter from John Chew, CEO of NASPA, was the olive branch held out to the most regressive members. “Yes, I even love that we have racists in the game,” he wrote. “It says so much about the power of our game and our community that even racists — not just the hardcore ones that actively spread their toxic hatred, but the softer ones who stand by rather than get involved, who say ‘I’m not offended, why should they be?’ or ‘If you can’t accept that the words have no meaning, you’re not welcome,’ or ‘If I’m not offended, why should you be?’ — can set aside their deep-seated beliefs to spend time playing a board game with people who do not share those beliefs.”

Whew, man. I know a lot of brands and organizations lean toward a “both sides” approach when discussing their approach to systemic prejudice, but I can’t recall ever seeing one explicitly say that racists belong in the community.

Truly, however, this is the inescapable logic of a pastime that privileges the superficiality of words while suppressing their actual effects. When you take Scrabble to its limits, you care only about what is permissible, not good or moral — the pure letter of the law. No doubt a few considerations are simply matters of taste and relative vulgarity; it’s too bad that pro competitors will now be denied the chance to drop the word “FUCKERS,” for one. But what is lost by eliminating the words that target people based on their race, religion, sexuality or appearance?

Only one of the last forums in which you can invoke these ugly names while professing that you did not intend their abusiveness. This goes a long way toward inclusivity and against petty elitism. 

Which reminds me, some friends and I did figure out how to loosen up and make Scrabble fun again: In the course of a game, let everyone make up a single word, as long as they provide a humorous definition for it. The results are delightful, and you know the very concept would make uptight Scrabble freaks bang their heads against a wall.

Too bad, nerds. It’s everybody’s language, and it’s never going to stay the same.