Donald Clarke: Not even Wordle can escape the culture wars in the US

The NYT replaced the word ‘fetus’ in its puzzle – but not to placate Anglophone readers

Wordle: played by the pampered urban wokeocracy? Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Wordle: played by the pampered urban wokeocracy? Photograph: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

 

There is nothing funny about the potential overturning of Roe v Wade in the United States. But even the grimmest of stories kicks up the odd trivial diversion.

Last week we learned the New York Times had replaced the word “fetus” as an answer to a recent Wordle puzzle. This will have annoyed the Anglophone Wordlers on this side of the Atlantic who just love getting recreationally furious when the game employs a uniquely American spelling (“foetus, foetal – not fetus” the Irish Times stylebook confirms). The change was, of course, unconnected with any desire for trans-oceanic harmony. That famously fastidious paper was concerned the word might remind readers of the leaked supreme court draft ruling that, if confirmed, could overturn abortion rights.

One imagines a grim man in a top hat reading the paper’s decision from a balcony overlooking Eighth Avenue. “Today, some users may see an outdated answer for Wordle that seems closely connected to a major recent news event. This is entirely unintentional and a coincidence,” the statement read. “When we discovered last week that this particular word would be featured today, we switched it for as many solvers as possible,” the paper further clarified. The scroll is rolled up. The spokesman retreats back into the Old Grey Lady’s gothic lair.

Newspapers are now treated as Rorschach inkblots that invite maniacs on Facebook to draw the most sinister interpretations of the most innocuous headlines

If you strain the brain until nerves visibly pulse, you could construct a potentially shifty interpretation of the original selection. Nobody on either side of the abortion debate denies that something called a foetus exists (however they may spell the word). But the crux of the issue has been how we habitually refer to . . . well, completing that sentence could be read as a political act.

Demonisation

One can just about imagine a “pro-life” Wordler seeing the answer as an assertion of the “pro-choice” case. It’s not as if the modern world is averse to pathological demonisation of [cue thunderous Wagnerian chord] The Mainstream Media. Newspapers – particularly those that incline gently in a liberal direction – are now treated as Rorschach inkblots that invite maniacs on Facebook to draw the most sinister interpretations of the most innocuous headlines. Out there on Twitter, at least as many people regard the New York Times as a tool of right-wing fat cats as see it as an organ of the pampered urban wokeocracy. From time to time, those people may even go so far as to read the story beneath the subheading.

More than anything else, the story reminds one of the conspiracy theories that gathered round the Daily Telegraph in the run up to D-Day. During those weeks, codewords for four of the landing beaches appeared as answers in the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. “Gold” and “Sword” could be dismissed as common-enough words in such a context, but “Utah” and “Omaha” seemed more suspicious. The puzzles also featured “Overlord”, code for the wider invasion; “Mulberry”, the name given to the artificial harbour, and “Neptune”, code for the assault phase.

For those weeks BBC Radio 1 listeners were unable to hear such dangerous material as Atomic by Blondie (too bomby) and Boom Bang-a-Bang by Lulu (too bangy)

MI5 arrested poor Leonard Dawe, the Telegraph crossword compiler, and interrogated him at length. It looked as if he might lose his job as a headmaster, but the security services eventually concluded there were no sinister undercurrents. It has been argued Dawe got suggestions for answers from his pupils and that some of those may have heard the codewords at home. Others have plausibly claimed the overlap was mere coincidence.

Blacklist

Such things happen. Conspiracy loons should be ignored. If we worry too much about any potential for misunderstanding we could end up echoing the notorious BBC blacklist of songs prohibited during the first Gulf War. For those weeks Radio 1 listeners were unable to hear such dangerous material as Atomic by Blondie (too bomby), Boom Bang-a-Bang by Lulu (too bangy), I Don’t Like Mondays by The Boomtown Rats (too shooty), Midnight at the Oasis by Maria Muldaur (too deserty) and When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going by Billy Ocean (beats me).

Even in today’s heated atmosphere, it seems unlikely any audible fury would have attended the unfettered arrival of “fetus” to Wordle. As things worked out, the main result of the hurried withdrawal was confusion among players. 

“Hey, WTF? My wife gets SHINE and I get FETUS,” an Australian correspondent wondered as the former word replaced the latter (midnight strikes early on that side of the world).

Hang on. “SHINE”? I discover that stands for “Sexual Health Information Networking and Education” in certain parts of the world. What are they trying to tell us? 

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