July 9, 2020

First they came for the statues of slave traders and confederate generals, and many of us applauded. Then they came for the name of the Dixie Chicks — and most of us were pretty relaxed about that too. But now the cultural moment is coming for, of all things, Scrabble.

The North American Scrabble Players’ Association has called for 238 “slurs” to be banned from the game on the grounds of their offensiveness — including not only the obvious racial epithets but terms such as “wrinklies” (offensive to old people), “papist” (Catholics) and “Jesuit” (apparently offensive to followers of St Ignatius of Loyola, though this seems to me highly questionable). “When we play a slur,” says John Chew, the association’s Chief Executive Officer, “we are declaring that our desire to score points in a word game is of more value to us than the slur’s broader function as a way to oppress a group of people.”

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There’s no certainty yet that this daft idea is going to catch hold. The international standard of tournament play remains Collins’s Official Scrabble Words (which is what we used to call SOWPODS), and Collins haven’t indicated that they’ll start expunging words from that. (There already exists a bowdlerised version, the Official Scrabble Players’ Dictionary, which up till now was reserved for children.)

But it’s not a sensible direction of travel. Ebi Sosseh, described in a news report I read as “a BAME player from Bournemouth”, was quoted as calling the move a “trivial gesture”. I’m with him. I’m not much for the N-word in Scrabble — not out of political correctness but because who ever has two Gs at once? And besides, it’s low-scoring and hard to play. But “wop” and “wog” are both pretty tasty in a tight corner (by which I mean the corner containing a triple-word tile) and Scrabble players would be the poorer without them.

More to the point, the meanings of the words used has never had the faintest bearing on a game of Scrabble. TI, KA, KI, TE, UT, MI, XU, NA, OE. Do you know what any of those words mean? I don’t — and I have played all of them many thousands of times in Scrabble games over the years. I have a dim sense that a GI is some bit of judo paraphernalia, but I may be quite wrong and it has never even crossed my mind to check.

Indeed, it’s perhaps not so much the fact that I don’t know what those words mean that matters, as the fact that when I’m playing Scrabble the meanings of the words I do know barely impinge. Looking over the list of allowable two-letter words, it requires a conscious effort to recall that “EH” is an expression of surprised curiosity. When you’re playing, it’s just one of a handful of two-letter words that you know will often let you get an H on a triple-letter going in two directions at once — which is a creditable 24 points right out of the gate. Scrabble players are more familiar with QI than any new age mystic, and get through more ZA than a teenage mutant ninja turtle.

The serious Scrabble player does not take the slightest interest in the meaning of the words he or she plays. It’s closer to a mathematical exercise than it is to a lexicographical one. The English language and its morphology (all those plurals and comparatives and conjugations) just provides a convenient corpus on which to perform the game’s operations. The question of meaning — another admittedly more useful thing that language does — is neither here nor there. The insight by linguists that language is a “discrete combinatorial system” — an essentially mathematical insight — is what makes this possible.

But here, perhaps, I’m getting a bit too abstract. It’s worth remembering how little eliminating a word from acceptable vocabulary serves in any case to limit the availability of the thought or the sentiment it expresses. When the Spastics Society renamed itself Scope — in part in consideration that the word “spastic” had become a 1980s playground insult — children simply started calling each other “scopers”. During the Falklands War, British paratroopers were told to stop calling the Falkland Islanders “Bennies” (after the dimwitted, beanie-wearing character from the TV soap Crossroads). It’s said that a commanding officer later overheard one of the men calling a local a “still” and asked why. “It’s because they’re still Bennies,” came the answer.

All words exist and have meaning in a context — and that applies to their offensiveness as well. Just as an image of a virus in a textbook, a virus on a microscope slide and a virus propagating in the human body are rather different propositions, so too are a word played in Scrabble, a word in a dictionary and a word hurled across the police lines at a protest march. The charge of offence does not inhere in the word itself, in an isolated phoneme or in a combination of letters. If we thought it did, among other things, we would have to rename Scunthorpe.

Take “jew”: quite inoffensive as a noun, but viciously derogatory as a verb. If a Scrabble player places it on the board, do they need to be cross-questioned as to what part of speech they had in mind and penalised accordingly? If they put down “scoper”, should it first be established whether the word as they played it meant “one who scopes” or “person with cerebral palsy (derog)”? Or “benny”, come to that: slang for a benzedrine tablet or slur against the genetic stock of the Falkland Islands? Is “slope” an incline or a racial insult? Is “faggot” a Lancashire lunch or a homophobic insult? Is “tranny” a radio? Making these issues the province of the Scrabble authorities is to make what philosophers call a category error.

And there’s a wider point here, too, to do with the tendency of a certain strand in progressive thought to reach for the low-hanging fruit, for the showy symbolic victory rather than the systemic fix. I’m often reminded of Naomi Klein’s wise and rueful line of self-reproach in her first book No Logo — where she described how her generation (during the first wave of what was then called ”political correctness”) poured its political energies into arguments about language and signification.

They missed, she said, the way in which, while they were doing that, globalisation was marching on unopposed. The material basis of human thriving — workers’ rights, corporate accountability, the wages and safety of the poorest people on earth — was changing while well-meaning college kids argued over whether it was better to say “black person” or “person of colour”.

To think that words themselves have power extracted from their context — and to evince a superstitious fear of that power — is to return to a primitive form of magical thinking. It’s a form of magical thinking that is well represented everywhere from the Kabbalah to the works of Aleister Crowley and the 1,001 Nights — but it’s not really for grown-ups in the secular and rational world to which progressives are supposed to aspire.