Jonathan Maitland

War of words: Scrabble players are being censored

War of words: Scrabble players are being censored
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For some of us, world war has already broken out. Since 1 January, when a decision to ban 419 ‘offensive’ Scrabble words became ‘law’ on the orders of game owners Hasbro and Mattel, the previously genteel world of competitive Scrabble has become riven with hostility.

The conflict started three years ago when the North American Scrabble Players Association polled its members about the issue. After more than 1,000 ‘passionate responses’, it decided to inflict a word cull. According to the association’s head John Chew, the 91-year-old game needed to be ‘more inclusive’: ‘How can we tell prospective members they can only play with us if they accept that offensive slurs have no meaning when played on a board?’

But the ban on hundreds of words has left many players – particularly my fellow travellers in the London Scrabble league – seething. There have been bitter spats, ruptured friendships and high-profile resignations. Author Darryl Francis quit the World English-Language Scrabble Players’ Association in protest, saying: ‘Words in dictionaries and Scrabble lists are not slurs. They only become slurs if used with a derogatory purpose or intent or used with a particular tone and context. Words in our Scrabble lists should not be removed for PR purposes disguised as promoting some kind of social betterment.’

Those who aren’t resigning or arguing are moaning incessantly. And not just because the diktat has robbed them of some useful high-scoring words such as bufty, gammat and lubra. All three have now been deemed capable of causing offence, even though most people have no idea what they mean.

Because that is competitive Scrabble’s no. 1 trade secret: to succeed, you often use words whose meaning you don’t know. There are approximately 180,000 legitimate words – compared with the average person’s knowledge of 50,000 – and it is impossible to know the definition of them all.

Lubra, it turns out, is an outdated term for an Aboriginal woman and is considered offensive. I am glad I know that now, and I respect the fact that it causes offence. However, misusing it in conversation is one thing, but placing those five letters on a board is another. Gammat, by the way, refers to the accent of Cape Coloured people, and bufty is Scots slang for gay.

Talk of the Scrabble ‘world’ is no exaggeration: playing the game is one of the most popular pastimes on the planet. Tens of millions play online, via apps or on good old-fashioned boards. It’s estimated that half of UK households have the game. The pandemic fuelled the global Scrabble craze further and more than three million people who downloaded the Scrabble GO app now play daily, for around 100 minutes a time.

It’s hard to find anyone in the Scrabble community in favour of the ban. That doesn’t mean that we approve of any of the banned words, mind you. Among them are some vile racial slurs. But the words can’t be un-invented: they are part of our sometimes shameful history. And playing them in a private word game is very different from using them in any other context.

As my friend Vernon, a seventysomething Glaswegian who regularly thrashes me during our weekly London League fixtures, says: ‘I will accept the new rules because I have no option. But I am doing it under duress. It’s madness.’

Vernon’s question is this: who, exactly, is at risk of being offended? Certainly not the eightysomething grannies with whom he and I regularly compete and who often play swear words and then cackle with delight at the naughtiness.

Then there’s the illogicality of it all. The useful, high-scoring word Jesuit, for example, is now banned. As is Jesuitic, which could net you 200 points in one go. ‘Jesuit’ is defined as ‘a member of an order of priests founded by St Ignatius Loyola in 1534 to do missionary work’. Why is this offensive? In some quarters, the word is used to describe attitudes perceived to be straitlaced, or – ironic considering the ban – censorious. What right have people to decide that a word used to denote a deeply held religious belief should be banned? But while Jesuit is banned, religious words such as Methodist and Pharisee (which can be offensive when used pejoratively about rabbis) are not.

The list goes on: poof is outlawed. Has anyone told the members of Four Poofs and a Piano, ‘Britain’s most popular covers band’ and one-time house band on the Jonathan Ross Show? Or my gay theatre director friend who is always telling me, usually mid-argument: ‘Jonny. Come on, I know I’m your favourite poof. And you’re my favourite Jew.’ Edgy but fine. Because I know his intent and where he’s coming from, so I am not remotely offended.

I only mention this because the word Jew has also been banned. As has jewed – meaning to ‘bargain shrewdly or unfairly with’. Nancy, dyke and wooftah are also banned – all capable of causing offence if used wrongly, but all of which I have heard countless people use happily to describe themselves.

I agree in essence with Craig Beevers, the 2014 World Scrabble Champion, who says: ‘The woke brigade are running our game.’ He believes the ban will be ‘the final nail in the coffin for a lot of competitive players’.

How to end the war? A Scrabble Truth and Reconciliation Commission-type event perhaps? We need to do something. Friendships are being ruptured; world-class talent is being lost from the game, perhaps for ever. But no peace settlement is in sight. Vernon didn’t even want me to use his real name in this article as he was worried about a social media backlash.

What, I wonder, would Alfred Mosher Butts make of it all? He was the kindly New York architect who invented the game in 1931 and lived comfortably off the royalties until he was 93. Wise man that he was, he would surely be asking: where will it end? What word will they come for next? His own surname, perhaps?

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