Scrabble bickers over “offensive” words

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Hasbro, the owner of the Scrabble brand in North America, has compiled a list of 280

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Hasbro, the owner of the Scrabble brand in North America, has compiled a list of 280 “insulting words” relating to ethnicity, sexuality, gender politics, religion, body parts and body functions.

OPINION: As social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo have spread, the mysterious little world of competitive Scrabble has also found itself put to the test.

A few weeks ago, social media was abuzz with news that the English Scrabble dictionary was going to be purged of hundreds of ‘offensive’ words, apparently in sympathetic response to the various social movements sweeping the United States.

This was news to most competitive Scrabble players around the world – and perhaps rather premature.

Kiwi Howard Warner after winning the European Scrabble Open title in 2014. He has also won the senior world title twice, as well as the NZ National Champs and NZ Masters 22 times.

Ross Giblin / Stuff

Kiwi Howard Warner after winning the European Scrabble Open title in 2014. He has also won the senior world title twice, as well as the NZ National Champs and NZ Masters 22 times.

In fact, the possibility had been raised by Hasbro, the owner of the Scrabble brand in North America. The gaming conglomerate hastily put together a list of 280 “offensive words” relating to ethnicity, sexuality, gender politics, religion, body parts and body functions. (There were only about 80 “unique” words. The rest were extensions, such as pets, pets, pets, and butthead.)

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North American gamers conducted a “shit list” poll, voting overwhelmingly against any dictionary redaction. Since then, the wider competitive Scrabble world, the 30 or so countries that make up the World English-language Scrabble Players Association (Wespa), has polled the opinions of its local members. All countries – including those in ethnically diverse Asia and Africa – are adamant that they do not want the dictionary of global actors to be censored in any way.

Scrabble players around the world insist that they do not want the player dictionary censored in any way.

KIRK HARGREAVES / Tips

Scrabble players around the world insist that they do not want the player dictionary censored in any way.

Hasbro cites “protecting family values” as the reason for its decision to ban the words. But Hasbro is a legal person. The cynical point of view is that it really protects sales. What he really wants is to sell more Scrabble games and dictionaries to families and schools.

Actors, both in North America and around the world, say it has nothing to do with societal values. Words played on a Scrabble board do not reflect player opinions or language used elsewhere.

At the competitive level, it’s not so much words as combinations of letters that score points. In addition, the definitions of “offensive” vary from one country, one milieu or one socio-political movement to another.

Modern acronyms are generally not acceptable in Scrabble, although

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Modern acronyms are generally not acceptable in Scrabble, although “OK” is now.

What hinders World Scrabble is that it is a proprietary game (unlike bridge, chess, or poker), with an ownership structure divided across the English speaking world.

Hasbro runs the game – and the player association – with an iron fist in North America. It also has the official wordlist derived from Merriam-Webster.

World Scrabble (outside of North America) is operated by multinational toy and game distributor Mattel, which authorizes Collins to publish a dictionary and wordlist for competitive players. But Wespa is independent, put together by the players for the players.

Thanks to Commonwealth-derived words, worldwide Scrabble players have about 40,000 more words than Americans.

Peter Meecham / Stuff

Thanks to Commonwealth-derived words, worldwide Scrabble players have about 40,000 more words than Americans.

Thanks to Collins Scrabble Words (CSW), we, the players of the world, have 40,000 more words to play with than Americans. These include Old English, Shakespearean, Spenserian, and Commonwealth derivative words. We have fought hard to expand this lexicon over the years, and we don’t want to go back – especially not on the whim of a separatist American company.

Hasbro said it plans to release a new redacted edition of the North American Gaming Dictionary this month whether or not competitive players use it. Wespa made his point very clear. And Mattel, perhaps more sensitive to gamers, has made no noise to follow Hasbro’s lead.

This means that, in all likelihood, New Zealand players won’t have to ‘unlearn’ a bunch of words. We can continue to play the game we love as we always have.

* Howard Warner is President of the New Zealand Association of Scrabble Players and a founding member of the World English-language Scrabble Players Association.


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