Who will win the war of words?


In early January, I started seeing a trickle of particular messages in my Twitter feed. A few of my smarter friends displayed a small grid of squares – gray, mustard yellow and green – topped with a series of numbers separated by a slash. The last digit was always six. At the top of each message, it was written “Wordle”. I thought, at first, the numbers meant a fraction, and it was some kind of statistic: how much snow had fallen the night before, or Joe Manchin’s approval numbers among independent voters. It was disconcerting.

The confusing messages were, it turned out, real enigmas. wordle– that’s what this thing is called – very quickly became something that virtually all of my friends online, as well as some offline, were talking about. What I saw was everyone’s score on a daily word game developed by a Brooklyn programmer. Josh Wardle had built it (as he said to New York Times) as a small gift for his girlfriend and uploaded it like a lark in November 2021. It attracted 90 solvers on the first day. By the time I heard about it, just two months later, the daily audience was 300,000 people. It has since exceeded 2 million.

All Wordle asks you to do is guess a five-letter word from a cold start. You get six tries. With each word you enter, you are told which letters are correct and correctly placed (they appear in green boxes) and which are correct choices but in the wrong places (yellow). On a good day, you’ll probably get it in three or four tries. One big day, two. A button lets you replicate the stack of green, yellow, and gray boxes and your numerical score, and it’s the weird little thing everyone was sharing in my Twitter feed. It was so pervasive that after a few weeks I even saw a backlash start to form. onion released a satirical explainer: “Q: How does it work? A: Once a day there is a word puzzle and you have six guesses to figure out why it’s fun. People started cutting out the word “Wordle” to exclude results from view. “Puns are variations too,” the Pulitzer-winning television critic joked. Emilie Nussbaum. “This new one is spreading faster but is less virulent.”

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What she was referring to was another online puzzle phenomenon that predated Wordle, growing a bit slower but much bigger: spelling beea game that appears next to the New York Timescrossword. It’s also conceptually basic. You get seven letters arranged in a hexagon with one in the center. You are expected to make words of four or more letters, and each answer must use the middle one. As you accumulate answers, you reach levels of success: “Good start”, “Moving Up”, “Nice”, and so on until “Genius”, which is moderately difficult but achievable if you stare at the thing long enough. I get there almost every day, eventually, and persuaded myself that I should be allowed to include that endorsement on the cover of my next book. ” ‘Brilliant.’ —The New York Times.”

What causes a puzzle to get its grippy little hooks in your brain is quite a mystery. I asked Will Shortz, who is the Timethe longtime puzzle editor and NPR’s “Weekend Edition” Puzzle Master (as well as the inventor of the original offline Spelling Bee), if there were any surefire ingredients for success. “There’s no way to predict what’s going to be huge,” he told me. “You can have something great that falls flat.” But, he suggests, there are a few things a puzzle maker can do to stack the game. Some are basic and general (“People like to form words from letters”), and others are technological. “Like Spelling Bee, Wordle has a wonderful, simple interface. It’s fun to use. And part of the appeal is that there’s a new puzzle every day. There’s not even an archive. Wordle, in particular, is very unlikely to consume more than five or six minutes of solving time.

Admittedly, both are well-designed, and specially well-designed to fit the vertical screen of the mobile phone. They work well if you’re at your desk, but they’re also great for relaxing before you go to bed at night, or at the bus stop, or queuing at the deli. Admit it: you, too, might love being called a genius by a prestigious global media outlet while you’re in the privacy of your own bathroom.

spelling beeThe built-in rating of (from Good Start to Genius) whispers Peerage of Burke. The chance to declare herself queen bee for obtaining the highest possible score: absolute monarchy!

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None of these runaway successes are entirely original. Wordle is almost identical to an old word game called Jotto and not so different from the board game Brain. Spelling Bee (despite a few key differences) relies on the same brain pieces as Scrabble. Both give you seven letters to scramble and re-scramble, and the central letter you need to use in the bee is akin to the tile you’re trying to attach your word to on the Scrabble board.

Shortz pointed out to me that anagram games like these date back to at least the late 19th century, when they were used in publicity contests. You would be given a product name, say, CELLULOID, and asked to make as many words as possible from its letters and mail the list. -celluloid – was quite effective advertising,” he notes.

wordle
The official journal resisted the addition of crossword puzzles until 1942. Today, the New York Times’ number puzzles generate huge profits, although the old idea that the printed version of the Sunday puzzle in pen is the definition of “selfishness” remains indelible.

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It is therefore not the novelty that motivates this. What is new is the aspect of social media. With this share button, Wordle lets you post your score if you want, which you’re more likely to do if it’s good. Spelling Bee, while inherently unshareable, offers a different kind of enjoyment, as its editor, Sam Ezersky, doesn’t accept every possible word on any given day. The list of answers is a selection, in order to leave out obscurities that few solvers would ever get. (The other day I typed in LAMBIC, a word I didn’t think was so obscure, because you see it regularly on beer menus. No.) with a little bark of mock indignation, this will always bring , and I mean always, your fellow bee-resolvers to ring with their own false-echo indignation. Wordle lets you brag about how efficiently you solved it that day; Spelling Bee also lets you brag about not solving it because you know too much.

Puzzle solvers can be as competitive as elite athletes, and that’s the equivalent of endzone dancing and ball smash. Nerds compete with words and numbers instead of yardage and assists, and social media, being a form well suited to the quick jab, is perfect for that kind of flex. Is a two-line Wordle score the new version of a flashy job change preceded by “Some personal news”? In this mini-universe, a high-achieving Wordle-and-Bee enthusiast like Benjamin Dreyer (Random House copy chief, author of the wonderful Writer’s Guide Dreyer’s EnglishTwitterer @BCDreyer) is a bigger celebrity than, say, Kim Kardashian in the outside world.

the military enigma i machine
Are Brits constitutionally good at puzzles? Leaving aside all the Enigma code-cracking of the Nazis, their diaries (especially the Time and Guardian) to offer cryptic puzzles that require more than a stiff upper lip.

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Whenever something becomes popular, the haters come out, of course. Inevitably, a hierarchy develops; in the land of riddles, the solvers of these sometimes deadly British-style cryptic crosswords despise simple americans, the way chess players discard checkers players. I suspect that soon we will see people from Spelling Bee start rolling their eyes at people from Wordle. But a lot of puzzlers seem to be omnivores, treating Wordle like a couple of midday potato chips and the Guardian crossword puzzle, for example, like a multi-course dinner.

One aspect of Spelling Bee that I find particularly spellbinding is what it reveals about our perceptual abilities. You can stare at all seven letters and go three-quarters of the way to Genius level, then get completely stuck – for hours, if you just sit there with your eyes glued. But if you step away from your phone or computer for a while, when you return, you’ll often immediately notice a handful of cool words. I started asking Shortz about this phenomenon, and he immediately jumped in with a flash of recognition: “This is crazy! You can come back to this position after 30 minutes and see something new. The same thing happens with crosswords. You come back and get a new answer you couldn’t do before, then solve the rest. He pauses. “The brain is an amazing thing.”

This story will appear in the March 2022 issue of City & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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