Spelling Bee and Me

Recently I discovered the New York Times’s Spelling Bee. It is a daily online quiz with a paper version in the Sunday magazine. Here is how it works. There are 7 letters arrayed in a hive with one of the seven in the middle. In the online version, you have to form words that are at least 4 letters long that use the letter in the middle. You can use any letter more than once. To play the online version, you must take out a subscription to the Times’s games, which costs $20 US annually. The Sunday paper version is slightly different, with words requiring a minimum of 5 letters.

I am a writer by profession and Spelling Bee is a way of sharpening my skills by finding and manipulating words. I play Spelling Bee first thing in the morning after I wake up. I’m a morning person so it is a good way of getting my mind in gear.

I have a procedure that I use to identify words quickly. I first look for 4 four letter words which are easy to find and which are a good way to get started. I also look for well known prefixes and suffixes and use them to form words. I try to visualize words that bounce up and down from the letters in the hive to the letter in the centre or that move around the hive and drop down into the letter in the centre. I also try to add letters to build longer words from shorter ones. Each game has one or more pangrams, or words that include all 7 letters. I find that after identifying a number of shorter words the pangram pops into my head and of course it’s very satisfying when it does.

The online game rates your performance based on points. You get one point for a four letter word, a point per letter for every word greater than 4 letters, and for the pangram you get an extra 7 points. As you get more points your rating gets higher and higher. You start as a beginner and then your rating can go to nice, good, great, amazing and then finally if you get most of the words it calls you a genius. I like to play long enough to identify a pangram and to get to a rating like great or amazing. At that point, which usually takes 15 minutes, I stop and I let the game go into my subconscious. Throughout the day words will pop into my head and I’ll have my phone open and I’ll add them.

I have discovered that there is someone out there who has developed his own algorithm to solve the game so that if you go to his web page – which I will not identify because I do not approve – you can enter the letters and a second later it will give you all the words that his algorithm identifies. I think this is unnecessary because the Times gives you the answers on the next day. I’m happy to wait.

One of the key issues for me in the online game is which words are acceptable and which words are not. As best as I can tell, Spelling Bee uses a standard but not extensive Modern American English dictionary to identify acceptable words. But I have found a lot of inconsistencies.

The rules say that you are not allowed to use what they call cuss words, but anatomical versions are acceptable. Thus, labia and labial are acceptable. I’m sure clitoris would be acceptable and it’s even a pangram. I wonder if the abbreviated four letter version of that body part would be acceptable. Medical words have some inconsistencies, hiatal is acceptable but tubal is not. Anality, a psychoanalytic term, was not accepted.

Though the game is based on modern American English it does accept some old English words such as hath. It doesn’t accept nattily, perhaps that’s too British. It also doesn’t accept tarn. It accepts trainman but not mainman.

I was also interested in how it deals with food words because many enter the English language from menus in ethnic restaurants. Naan, the bread that accompanies Indian food, is acceptable but thali, a metal tray containing many small courses, isn’t. Nor is navarin, a French stew. I wonder if tiffin is acceptable. Staying in India, rani – a queen – is acceptable, but rana, her consort, is not.

Finally I was interested in religious words. Halal is acceptable and presumably kosher would be. Taking my Jewish heritage a little bit further on I tried oneg, tallit, and mogen, and none of them are acceptable. The conclusion I draw with respect to the acceptability or unacceptability of words is a shrug and “go figure.”

As a Canadian I’m of course quite familiar with British spelling and to an extent vocabulary. I wonder if carer would be acceptable. I also wonder if British spellings would be acceptable. I hope that someday the letters “o” and “u” will be in the hive and we will see.

The Sunday paper version gives you more freedom to set your own rules. I accept British vocabulary and spelling as well as Scrabble rules. If I have a question about a word I look it up online to see whether it is an acceptable Scrabble word.

For me Spelling Bee has become a very valuable mind sharpener, but not an obsession. I congratulate Sam Ezersky, the editor, and appreciate his efforts. If you are not aware of it, give it a try.

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