The North American Scrabble Players Association (NASPA) seems poised to remove hundreds of offensive slurs from tournament-level Scrabble play. The proposed move is part of an effort by the group to “support Black Lives Matter and bring justice to our world,” as organization CEO John Chew put it in a recent newsletter.
Hasbro, which publishes Scrabble, told The New York Times that NASPA has “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 company said it will also be updating the game’s rules “to make clear that slurs are not permissible in any form of the game.”
But after weeks of debate, NASPA’s 12-person advisory board hasn’t yet officially voted on the proposal to ban over 200 offensive slurs and variations from tournament play. That vote is set for later this week.
“I have felt for a long time that there are some words in our lexicon that we hang onto in the mistaken belief that our spelling them with tiles on a board strips them of their power to cause harm,” Chew said in a message to the NASPA Advisory Board urging the removal.
The argument over whether “offensive” words have a place in Scrabble is not a new one. In the mid-’90s, Hasbro faced outside pressure when the Anti-Defamation League publicly took issue with a number of words that are noted as offensive in the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (which itself gathered words collected words published in other major dictionaries, including those marked as offensive in those source texts).
“They are literally playing games with hate by supplying legitimacy to such historically hateful and personally hurtful terms in a book that serves as a parlor game guide, very often by impressionable young people,” ADL spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum said at the time.
As a compromise, Hasbro and Merriam-Webster agreed to remove hundreds of offensive words from the game’s official published dictionary in 1994. Club and tournament players, meanwhile, would continue to use an expanded word list that kept all offensive words as valid plays (this extremely NSFW list keeps track of all the tournament-playable words missing from the official dictionary).
While the ’90s Scrabble word removal included a wide range of offensive terms, the recent NASPA discussion has focused exclusively on words “which are primarily used as slurs… words that are used to label someone as being of less value than the speaker based on some innate trait such as gender, race or sexual orientation.” Words that are “used to cause offense on scatological, prurient, profane or other grounds” are not under discussion this time around. NASPA publishes an obfuscated, anagrammed list of which offensive words fall into each category.
Is it a slur or just a “string of letters”?
NASPA members have been discussing the proposed slur removal in a private Facebook group for weeks, with fervent arguments on both sides of the issue. Those arguing for keeping the words in the game generally feel that, in the context of Scrabble, these words are merely “strings of letters” that get converted to in-game points, completely divorced from any meaning they may have in the real world.
“The spoken word can be offensive,” Connecticut player Benjamin Bloom said in an interview with Slate, but “a random string of tiles on a 15-by-15 Scrabble board should never offend anyone.”
On the other side, players argue that it’s not a major inconvenience to unlearn a few hundred words—which generally don’t come up much in high-level Scrabble play—from a list that includes over 192,000 acceptable plays. That’s especially true if using those words might cause offense to existing players or deter new players from joining the competitive Scrabble community.
Some also argued that playing offensive words can make tournament players “look like a group of rude bigots” to casual viewers or passersby that might view the game board. That’s what happened in 2010, when a Cleveland area newspaper had to write an apology after using a photograph of a board from a local tournament containing a slur. Players in tournaments broadcast on ESPN have also been asked to avoid playing offensive words in the past.
“When we play a slur, 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,” Chen wrote in his letter to NASPA members. “I don’t think that this is the time for us to be contributing divisively to the world’s problems.”
The Scrabble controversy follows last month’s decision by Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast to ban seven Magic: the Gathering cards with racist imagery or connotations from tournament-level play.
If NASPA votes to remove slurs from its wordlist later this week, the decision will go into effect in tournaments starting on Sept. 1.