Should Scrabble Ban Offensive Words? The Dictionary Debate
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Companies Calling for Change
The origins of the effort to remove offensive terms from Scrabble date back to 1994. Back then, Hasbro, the company that owns Scrabble and holds the right to distribute the game in the United States, removed over 200 words from their official Scrabble dictionary. It was an effort to be more considerate of groups and individuals who might have seen the inclusion of those words as insensitive.
The issue for Hasbro, however, was that while they took the words out of their dictionary, they weren’t necessarily removed from every Scrabble dictionary. NASPA, the official tournament organization responsible for the competitive scene in North America, opted to keep those words in their dictionary. This choice stayed in effect for over 25 years.
Hasbro Pressuring NASPA
NASPA changed their stance in the summer of 2020, however, when they were met with pressure from Hasbro to remove them. In the wake of much civil unrest spurred by concerns about inequality in the United States, Hasbro again pushed for the removal of those words.
Julie Duffy, a Hasbro spokeswoman, gave a statement about the company’s update of the official rules and their partnership with NASPA: “Hasbro Gaming is rooted in community and bringing people together, and we are committed to providing an experience that is inclusive and enjoyable for all.”
Hasbro has no direct control over NASPA and fan-run tournaments, but they do license the game to the organization. The toy company was able to leverage that licensing deal to convince NASPA to remove the words from their official tournament dictionary.
Mattel Pressures WESPA and Collins
Now, those in charge of Scrabble in the rest of the world are beginning to follow suit. Mattel, the toy company that owns the rights to distribute Scrabble outside of North America, has called for the Collins Dictionary, the dictionary used by worldwide Scrabble tournaments, to remove over 400 offensive words from their dictionary.
They also called for WESPA, the World English-Language Scrabble Players' Association, to enforce the omission of these words at all official tournaments. Mattel cited similar concerns as Hasbro did over the continued inclusion of words that are commonly associated with hate speech.
Organizations With Decisions to Make
When NASPA and WESPA learned about Hasbro and Mattel’s requests, and later decisions, it was not a simple matter of following through with them. Changes to the dictionaries meant changes in how the game would play. Naturally, there would be some opposition from the community.
NASPA Members Vote to Keep the Words
When Hasbro first asked NASPA to remove the words, the whole group was not willing to do so. Rather than make a decision unilaterally, NASPA put it to a vote for all of their members. They sent out a message asking players to pick from four options to express their opinions:
Remove all offensive words
Remove only slurs
Remove only the “N-word”
Make no changes
When the results came back, NASPA’s executives found that most players were in favor of making no changes to the list. Stefan Fatsis explained the results in his article about the issue on Slate:
“Of almost 1,200 responses, just 1 in 3 respondents backed removing the slurs or all offensive words. Forty-six percent supported leaving the word list unchanged, and another 11 percent favored eliminating only the N-word. The gap between those who play competitively and those who don’t was even wider: 50 percent of NASPA members favored no change in the list at all, compared with just 8 percent of other respondents.”
Overturning the Democratic Decision
NASPA chose to follow the requests of the players to keep the words. However, that decision was indirectly overruled by Hasbro. As stated earlier, Hasbro has the power to cancel its licensing deal with NASPA. If they lost the license, NASPA would no longer be able to host tournaments directly linked to Scrabble. Another organization could take the licensing deal, create a Hasbro-approved word list and become competition for the group.
With their options limited, and with some executives in favor of the changes, NASPA chose to remove the words from their dictionary in July 2020.
WESPA and Collins Follow Suit
This is also what happened with Mattel and WESPA. The change in the United States was the start of a shift that swept across every territory. Mattel chose to enact its removal of slurs and offensive words from its official Scrabble dictionary in spring 2021.
Facing the same limitations as NASPA did as a licensee, WESPA and Collins Dictionary chose to remove the 400-plus words that Mattel no longer wanted to be part of the game.
The Counterargument: Offense Is in the Intent
The corporations that own the rights to Scrabble and the organizations that manage the official Scrabble tournaments have their reasons for removing the hot topic words. However, there are many people who have reasons to oppose removing what may be deemed offensive words from the game.
This is a debate that seems straightforward on the surface, but it becomes complicated when considering all viewpoints.
Many players of many different backgrounds oppose the idea of removing the targeted offensive words. This opposition stems from a gameplay focus and a societal one. To them, the use of offensive words in Scrabble does not carry the same negative connotation as it does in other parts of society.
The Loss of Points
The removal of words means the removal of player options. The number of words removed or being removed is a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of words found in the Scrabble dictionaries. But, in competitive Scrabble, players need to know and be allowed to use as many words as possible. Any combination of letters can create an advantage.
That’s the key idea for players who oppose the removal. Scrabble is more a game about math than it is about language. The words don’t represent terms or ideas, necessarily. They represent potential points. Their combination of letters and their placement on the game board can win or cost someone a game. Removing any of the letter combinations could spell disaster in some situations.
A Fight Against Control
The other issue players take with the removal of the offending words has to do with overreach. When people pay for a product, they want to use it how they’d like. This means the idea that Hasbro and Mattel can simply tell everyone which words are allowed in any form of play is unwelcomed.
Players understand that companies have a right to do what they want for their own brands, which includes canceling licenses. That doesn’t, however, mean the players are willing to simply bend to any corporation’s desires. Hasbro and Mattel’s decisions, which many players see as being insincere attempts to be politically correct, have created rifts in the community.
The Future of Scrabble at Arm’s Reach
Many players—and even major tournament organizers—are now looking into the possibility of distancing themselves from the Scrabble brand. Some even propose going as far as giving a new name to the tournament game. This would essentially turn it into a Scrabble clone, similar to Words With Friends or Wordfeud.
There is also the concern of what these changes will mean for the future. The addition of words to any dictionary is an ongoing process. And now, the removal of words will be as well.
A Living Language
The meanings of words and their connotations change over time. Their relative importance or prominence also increases and diminishes. A word that was fine and used everywhere yesterday might become taboo tomorrow. Many players are concerned that their game will be ruined over time by society’s ever-changing norms.
A Community Still Worth Exploring
There are many valid points of view on both sides of the offensive words argument. It’s clear which way Hasbro, Mattel, WESPA and NASPA intend to handle the situation. But, Scrabble players will have to wait to see what, if any, long-term ramifications will come from these decisions.
This discussion has stirred up a fair amount of drama in the competitive Scrabble community. That doesn’t mean it’s an unpleasant community to be a part of, however. If you’re interested in learning more about the scene and even want to join it, this guide to Scrabble clubs will teach you how to find players in your area.
Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.