Josephine Flowers became a ranked competitive Scrabble player more than a dozen years ago, and to commemorate the moment, she inscribed her custom-built game board with one of her favorite sayings: “Never underestimate the power of words.”
The phrase serves as a constant reminder to her that, even when people say that the words formed on a Scrabble board are supposedly divorced of meaning, they still can inflict pain.
That is why Flowers, who is Black, and several other members of the North American Scrabble Players Association led a movement to have the organization ban the use of 226 offensive terms.
“You could be sitting there for a 45-minute game just looking at that word,” said Flowers, a mental health worker from Arkansas. “And if you don’t know the person who played it, then you wonder, ‘Was it put down as a slight, or was it the first word that came to their mind?’ ”
Hasbro, which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, made the announcement that the players association had “agreed to remove all slurs from their word list for Scrabble tournament play, which is managed solely by NASPA and available only to members.”
The announcement raised some eyebrows among association members because the association hadn’t yet made such a deal and, technically, Hasbro has no control over the 192,111 playable words on the organization’s word list. But it does license the name Scrabble to the association, which gives it very powerful leverage.
John Chew, chief executive of the association, said he is going to ask the organization’s 12-person advisory board to vote on the matter, but he indicated that the change is a fait accompli.
“It is the right thing to do,” he said.
Julie Duffy, a spokeswoman for Hasbro, said the company will amend Scrabble’s official rules “to make clear that slurs are not permissible in any form of the game.”
The agreement also could affect what words can be played in online versions of the game. Many software companies license the players’ association’s lexicon and provide it to online versions of the game, meaning those words would become ineligible in those versions of the game, too.
Scrabble tournaments had previously allowed slurs on the basis that, however egregious, they are part of the English language. The guiding principle for players has been that points — not messaging or tact — win games.
But as people worldwide campaign against systemic racism after George Floyd’s killing, a wide range of previously untouchable monuments, team names and, now, the rules of a board game, are under scrutiny.
The 226 words being banned are labeled offensive by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, especially the racial slur that the dictionary says is “almost certainly” the most offensive in the English language.
“When people are dying in the streets over racial tensions and this word still has so much power,” Chew said from his home in Toronto, “you have to tell yourself this is just a game we are playing and we have to do what we can to make things right, just in our little corner of the world.”
The debate over the use of slurs in Scrabble is not new. In the 1990s, the Anti-Defamation League called on Hasbro to disallow the use of slurs after a complaint about an anti-Semitic term. Hasbro obliged, but the competitive players objected. In a compromise, slurs and profanities were taken out of the official Scrabble Dictionary, but clubs and tournaments could follow a separate lexicon, produced by the players’ association, that allowed for the slurs.
“It is very difficult for a lot of people to understand why those words are still acceptable in Scrabble,” said Stefan Fatsis, author of “Word Freak,” a book on competitive scrabble.
But, he added, “it is also hard for them to understand why ‘qi’ and ‘aa’ are words. For Scrabble players, they are just instruments with which to score points.”
The competitive players’ attitude toward slurs has changed, said Steven Alexander, who said he doesn’t like the idea of exclusions but understands the motivation behind them.
“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.”
Three main objections
For those who have objected to removing the words, Chew said, the three main arguments were: A word’s meaning is irrelevant in Scrabble; it’s a slippery slope, and — one he repeated with a tone of incredulity — if some people are not offended by the presence of those words, why should anyone else be?
“I can go through about 50 responses in a day before I need to get out the brain bleach,” Chew said.
He also noted that some members have told him that, since he is not Black, this is not his fight. And there are Black players who oppose removing the offensive 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 competitive player from Florida who opposes removing any words. “I need to score points, and on that board, they don’t have any meaning.”
Livermore, who calls Scrabble “a numbers game disguised as a word game,” insisted that he doesn’t take it personally when an opponent plays an insulting word. But he also recalled using an insulting word against a female opponent.
“I apologized,” he said. “But I need the points. I’m not going to lose the game.”
John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who is Black, proposed using asterisk tiles in place of the offensive words so that no one has to stare at a slur during a game. He said that he’s concerned about who gets to determine what is and what is not offensive.
“What is the next thing we can’t use, and how do you decide what’s a slur?” he asked.
Some of the most commonly used slurs in Scrabble are three-letter words, popular for their ability to slip into small crevices on the board and rack up big scores. Flowers said she has played one such small word regularly without understanding the meaning. She also used an anti-Semitic word in a national tournament years ago, and said she regrets it.
That is why she advocates banning any word that a group considers offensive to them.
“I’m surprised it’s even a question,” she said. “Where are the hearts and the thoughts of the people who want to keep these words? Why are they so attached to offensive words when there are so many other words to play and enjoy?”