The New York Times Wordle Ethics Zugzwang

Boy, did the Times deserve this.

The paper acquired the online game Wordle earlier this year after it became a viral hit. Answers to the puzzle game are assigned months in advance. In a pure coincidence reminiscent of the London crossword puzzle incident that almost derailed D-Day, yesterday’s Worldle answer happened to evoke the current freakout over the draft Supreme Court opinion that suggests that Roe v. Wade may finally be going down for the count. The answer was “fetus.”

Can’t have that! The Times moved quickly to de-trigger the game for sensitive (and virtuously woke) devotees, writing,

Wordle continues to delight millions of people every day, but as we move it over to The Times’s technology, we have continued to discover challenges.

Today, for example, some users may see an outdated answer that seems closely connected to a major recent news event. This is entirely unintentional and a coincidence — today’s original answer was loaded into Wordle last year.

At New York Times Games, we take our role seriously as a place to entertain and escape, and we want Wordle to remain distinct from the news.

But because of the current Wordle technology, it can be difficult to change words that have already been loaded into the game. When we discovered last week that this particular word would be featured today, we switched it for as many solvers as possible.

You won’t receive the outdated version if you have refreshed your browser window. But we know that some people won’t do that and, as a result, will be asked to solve the outdated puzzle.

We want to emphasize that this is a very unusual circumstance. When we acquired Wordle in January, it had been built for a relatively small group of users. We’re now busy revamping Wordle’s technology so that everyone always receives the same word. We are committed to ensuring that tens of millions of people have a gratifying and consistent experience, every day.

Thank you for your patience while we work on making improvements to Wordle. We wouldn’t be here without our amazing community of solvers.

I love it! The Times was trapped. If it did nothing about the accidentally provocative employment of “fetus,” it was going to be accused of politicizing its popular game, sparking a firestorm of angry readers. its progressive warrior readers, meanwhile, would accuse the Times of giving sympathy and shelter to anti-Roe advocates by using Worldle to suggest that the fetus was relevant to the abortion debate. (“Fetus? What fetus? This is about choice!”)

If it removed the answer, the Times set a precedent that would be guaranteed to be an endless headache, look silly in the process and, best of all, highlight the dread word more by changing it than by leaving the pre-set answer as it was. All options were harmful in one way or another, the essence of ethics zugzwang, a term borrowed from chess, in which zugzwang is a situation where any move loses the game.

Of course the Times, being plagued by rusted, broken and uninstalled ethics alarms, chose the more unethical course. Because of the lateness of its actions, the game was loused up: some players had the new answer, some had the old, eeeevil one, and confusion reigned.

Because the Times now embraces censorship and hiding issues when it’s inconvenient to publish “all the news,” it flagged its own rot by not even mentioning what the taboo answer was, confusing everyone else. (Or maybe it was a new game: Guess what word the Times is afraid to print!). If it now is verboten to print “fetus,” this poses a problem for the word-banners. “F-word” is already taken.

My immediate reaction to the episode was that the Times, like all intellectually dishonest abortion advocates, has allowed its journalists and pundits to leave the fetus out of the complex abortion ethical analysis all along, its decision to leave “fetus” out of an explanation about why they were removing “fetus” as a Worldle solution was signature significance for an untrustworthy newspaper, and none-too-bright editors.

I’m making a mental list right now of the five-letter words the Times will have to avoid using in Wordle because they risk defeating the goal of keeping the game “distinct from the news.” including future news.

Shots…masks…liars…dummy…riots…scams…woman (of course)…trans…cheat…trump…bunny…bible…slave…child..

It might be easier to make a list of words that won’t collide with the news.

Oh…about the D-Day incident. It’s one of the weirdest coincidences in history. Beginning on May 2, 1944, the top secret code words for specific parts of the D-Day operation, planned for June 6, began appearing up as answers in the Daily Telegraph’s crosswords. The ominous answers included the code names of the beaches where Allied forces would land, including the U.S. targets code-named Utah and Omaha, and other features of the invasion. One puzzle included “Mulberry,”the name for the artificial harbors that were to be anchored off the coast of France to help move equipment to the beaches. On May 27, the puzzle included the code name for the entire invasion: Overlord. This led British intelligence to interrogate the puzzles’ creator, Leonard Dawe. Dawe, 54, was headmaster of the Strand boys’ school.

The poor man was questioned aggressively for many hours, but there was no evidence that he was trying to communicate with the enemy. There are theories about how the code words ended up in his crossword puzzles, but to this day, nobody knows. According to Cornelius Ryan, the historian who wrote “The Longest Day,” the appearance of the code words in the paper so close to the planned invasion led to serious consideration of postponing the operation.

At least Dawe didn’t use “fetus.”

10 thoughts on “The New York Times Wordle Ethics Zugzwang

  1. Who would have ever thought that the old adage, “Walking on egg shells”, would have ever been applicable to the NYT? Well, you know the other adage that applies — “They made their bed ….”.

    Yes, it is a minimalistic summary, but, that’s all I’ve got.

  2. The Times‘s history with Wordle has been a thoroughgoing disaster from day one. I had a few hundred words written about it in an abortive (oops… can I say that?) attempt to break out of blogger’s block a few weeks ago. But it wasn’t enough for a full post, and accompanying stories sort of fell apart, and…

    I’m currently pulling together my thoughts for a piece on Florida’s “Stop WOKE” law. So far, I have a bunch of ideas, but only one sentence written: “The line between confirmation bias and learning from experience is thin and permeable.” I wonder whether that’s an appropriate line for this story, too.

    On the one hand, the elimination of words like “slave” and “whore” makes one suspect, as you do, that there’s an ideological bias at play here.
    On the other hand, “fetus” apparently made it through that initial cut, so it could be that this is an attempt–still problematic, but less so, I think–to keep the headlines and the word games separate.

    By the way, I’m trying to figure out the puzzle in your graphic. Only thing I can think of is “rupee.” But it can’t be that, can it?

    • I have no idea. Though I love Scrabble,Boggle,and board word games like Probe, and have always loved cyphers and codes,I have no patience with solo word puzzles. I’ve never completed a crossword puzzle in my life, and the Jumble gave me hives just looking at it.

  3. I’m reminded of many years ago when I worked for a mail-order CD club. The magazines sent to the members each month were made up well in advance. One month a magazine cover advertised the band Anthrax.

    This was at the same time after 9/11 that someone was mailing anthrax to people.

    You can imagine what people thought.

  4. Another piece of entertainment I will have to eschew. I hought fetus was an acceptable word to the left since it avoided a baby or developing human person. I still object to the auto rejection of words like niggardly, fag, gay, i have been corrected to avoid Mr. and Mrs. as those titles may be offensive to some..

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