The power of words

Like a lot of people in my corner of the internet, I’ve recently become attracted to the daily Wordle puzzle published online. I first came across it via Twitter, when some of those I follow started around the turn of the year to publish some strange coloured runes accompanied by a wee bit of unfathomable text – and then someone posted a link to a short news item (now lost to me, I’m afraid) giving me a clue as to what it’s all about.

For the uninitiated, this version of Wordle (I first encountered the word years ago as a form of software for drawing word clouds to help make visual sense of large blocks of text, now with an address slightly shifted to edwordle.net) is a simple word game in which you have six goes to guess a five-letter (proper) word. The response to each guess you make is a green tile for a letter which is in the right place in the target word; an amber one for a letter which is in the target word but not in the same place as in your entry; and a grey tile for each letter in your entry which is not in the target word. It’s a bit like the ‘Mastermind’ board game in the 1970s, only with words as the target rather than coloured pegs; and you get fewer goes (but, as a result, with more specific information in response). I didn’t really get Mastermind (others did…) and probably the key for me is the use of words here rather than coloured pegs.

Each day’s Wordle is posted on a simple website – www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle – and its ‘inventor’ is ‘Josh Wardle’ who describes himself as an ‘artist, product manager and engineer’ and whose confessed purpose is to use the game to focus on human interaction. The result is that your Wordle results are easily shareable: the link to do so translates the outcome of your game into the runes I described above (and of which you may be able to see some examples down there on the left margin of this page) from which it’s a simple matter to paste into your social(s) of choice. Twitter, in my case. There is an unspoken code of conduct between players in which there are no spoilers; and the tiles within the ‘share’ button hide all the letters of your guesses so, on viewing others’ achievements, you know neither the solution nor the letters which are no longer in play.

It is, ultimately, just a bit of fun although these days there’s not that much on the internet that’s ‘just for fun’.

Yesterday’s Wordle indeed caused a bit of a kerfuffle, as you might well be able to judge from my outcome screenshot below (and which will lead to some merriment among my language editing clients who are, at first glance, bemused by my question as to whether they want what Microsoft, rather loosely, calls ‘US English’ or ‘UK English’). Some were angry at the apparent misdirection which had led to their stats of solved puzzles being undermined, or at solutions being found in more goes than hitherto, as well as to the numbers of words now in play which do not exactly ‘favour’ UK players; others were more resigned about the clues this gives to the state of the world (and, you might think, ‘global Britain’s’ place within it).

Given that you start with a blank sheet of paper, the game is surprisingly easy to get right and I wouldn’t be surprised if my ‘completed’ stats (75%; based on two out of eight games not being completed (I’m not exactly an early adopter…): one the first as I put in any old nonsense to check how it worked; the other another early attempt where I had a 50:50 at go six and plumped for the wrong one) were not among the lowest of regular users. I did, however, spend a lot more time on this one than on the others. After go two, I knew the word had an ‘a’ in place two and ended with an ‘r’; word endings of ‘-ur’ are not that common; while not that many end in ‘-or’ either (depending, of course, on your dictionary) although there aren’t many other choices than these. I got lucky with go three (I was thinking of valorise – and don’t get me started there, either!) which told me it ended in ‘-avor’ but I still wasn’t thinking of the US approach to spelling, running through my options twice before plumping, with a fair degree of trepidation, for ‘favor’ (as there was nothing else it could have been).

The feeling of being let-down was present, although brief: ‘Josh’ is American so this sort of problem and these sorts of feelings simply wouldn’t occur. And, of course, all these games have to start with some sort of a dictionary – and therein lies a world of debate between users of English. I’m not complaining – keeping all this in the air for other people does help to keep me in work 🙂

In my case, I was more upset about the apparent misdirection: the .co.uk suffix in the website’s domain name had, for me, led to a non-thinking, automatic presumption of the use of ‘UK English’ on the site (although I also know that country code top level domains haven’t been restricted to the countries concerned for over twenty years now – and which process has made a bit of money for Tuvalu (.tv) and Montenegro (.me). Being ‘UK English’ myself, that sort of presumption comes anyway as naturally as ‘US English’ would to an American. Other languages wouldn’t have this sort of problem – and I can easily see versions of Wordle working very well at powerlanguage.de, powerlanguage.ro and powerlanguage.ba, for instance. (Well, maybe not .de on the grounds that there may well not be enough five-letter words around in German.)

But we are precious about our stats and our record and achievements; and about a presumption of simple honesty of those who deal with us, even if we are partnering with an algorithm of some kind. We don’t like being played for fools; and being led to agonise over a combination of letters that is really quite simple does make us feel foolish. There are also cultural values at stake here, too, in terms of the word choices: interestingly, today’s word (achieved by this writer in four goes) is, I suspect, likely to be achieved more quickly and more readily by users of ‘UK English’.

I always start with ‘raise’, by the way: it’s the word that makes the best use of the most-used letters in the English alphabet. Though whether those are the same most-used letters in five-letter words is a different question – and, perhaps, a job of work already being engaged in by ‘Josh’. (NB I can’t see any data privacy protocols around the site or which become apparent on first use and, like anything else, Wordle – for all its desire to get ‘humans’ talking around shared issues – is surely likely to be a data collection operation somewhere along the line.) Others might find more fun in starting with a word inspired by current affairs – party, for instance – and making connections that way. Going from ‘party’ to ‘slump’ (the Wordle from a few days ago) would have been amusing, even if we know that the day’s word of choice is not made by a human but by an algorithm with no interest in the current affairs of ‘UK England’.

[Edit 27 January 2022: Wordle has been rumbled – though indeed that won’t stop me playing and, occasionally, sharing. It seems as though some of my suspicions in this piece were a little wide of the mark, though the thought that inspired them – that we need to be more careful online – still remains valid. And, yes, some things on the internet are indeed just for fun. And that’s a happy thought.]

[Edit 2: 1 February 2022: Well, indeed I spoke too soon since Wardle yesterday sold Wordle to the New York Times for what the company said was ‘in the low seven figures’. Not a bad return for an apparently simple piece of coding drawn up originally to give a bit of fun to his wife – and good luck to him. He promises that it will remain ‘free’ and that he is working with the NYT to ensure people’s stats are transferred (though it seems the NYT is only promising ‘initially free‘). But then, nothing is ‘free’ (or, indeed, in Wardle’s own words, can ‘just be fun‘) on the internet – the NYT exists behind a paywall and, while Wordle, once transferred, may well continue to be ‘free’ (at least for a while), it will be in return for at least your registration on its website and the cookies it will place on your computer as a result to track where you go. Plus, quite probably, a few ads. That may well be a ‘no thanks’ from me.]

2 thoughts on “The power of words

  1. There is a programme on London ITV each afternoon (Monday to Friday) at 3 o’clock called Lingo which sounds like a similar word game to the one you are writing about. Teams of two persons play against each other on a limited time and progress each round until the winning team take the prize money on offer.

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