By Michael B. Cover
One of the “fun” things to emerge out of this pandemic is Wordle. Created by Josh Wardle, a Welshman, for his word-loving friends, the game was perhaps from a theological point of view inevitable. As G. M. Hopkins says, each one of us little words of God
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
At some level, then, it might seem that God called Wardle for this purpose. At minimum, Wardle’s Wordle has become a household name in many families, including ours. Most mornings, my wife and I work it over a cup of coffee, and our daughters have become fond of joining in, though they sometimes complain that they don’t have a large enough vocabulary to participate.
And it’s got most of us thinking in unprecedented ways about five-letter words and the whole range of meanings that can emerge in American English when one combines a handful of our twenty-six characters. It’s amazing, really, the variety — how words as obscure as “rebus” (another kind of puzzle) and uncomfortably familiar as “panic” can arise from the same set of alphabetical conditions.
As one becomes more familiar with the game, one inevitably compares it with other word games, which have been staples of human culture for millennia. What is it about us image-bearers that likes “Words with Friends” and other such challenges? And what does Wordle in particular, when compared with other forms of wordsport, tell us about where we are now as a people and a society?
In the beginning was the acrostic — that is, at least, the earliest kind of word game that readily springs to mind (no doubt, students of the Ancient Near East will point out other wordworks in the storehouse of the Akkadian scribes). Psalm 119 is a good example of the Israelite acrostic, in which each of the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 characters introduces eight verses that begin with that same letter, to sound out the author’s fulsome praise of the Torah of Moses. This is not a word game in the classic sense (unless all poems are), but there’s something in the special challenge of working with the limits of a single letter that connects the Psalm to Wordle. For example, in the eight lines beginning with the character kaf, the poet rings the changes of the letter, causing it to introduce several verbs (each word in Hebrew has three main consonants), the conjunctive word “for,” the preposition “like/according to/as,” and the adjective “all.” The seventh line of this section (Ps. 119:87) even has the first two words beginning with kaf (kimǝ‘at killuni), to punctuates the author’s precarious situation (“they almost made an end of me!”). Surely the singer of the psalm rejoices inwardly, or at least gets a little chuckle, at the cleverness with which the author struggles to sound out the limits of human language, turning the kaf this way and that, in a paean to the ineffable God and his quinqueliteral “Torah.”
There are other forms of wordplay in antiquity. The presence of written vowels in Indo-European scripts made possible feats like the famous Latin wordsquare, “sator arepo tenet opera rotas” (“the planter Arepo has wheels as [his] works”). In addition to this sentence being readable forward and backward, these five five-letter words can be stacked in a square and read horizontally and vertically. Likewise impressive is the Greek palindrome engraved on the baptismal font outside Hagia Sophia (Νίψον ἀνομήματα, μὴ μόναν ὄψιν – nipson anomēmata, mē monan opsin), which gives “wash <your> sins, not only <your> face.” Here, the words for “wash” and “only” consist of five letters but the palindrome only works out perfectly in Greek characters. Clearly, the contemporary fascination with words and their limits is no new phenomenon, but a common feature of human nature and culture across time.
To really understand Wordle, however, one has to reckon with a more recent variety of wordsport: the crossword. This (along with Scrabble and Wheel of Fortune) would seem to be the most important point of comparison for understanding Wardle’s gift. The fact that it was The New York Times that originally introduced Wordle to the world, and has now snapped it up for profit, shows that the American crossword magnate was looking to expand its repertoire and find a new kind of wordgame. The question remains: why?
There are several gains that Wordle makes on the crossword, in both its classical and cryptic varieties. The first is that it is shorter. A “wordle” is a diminutive “little word” (like “chortle” and “chuckle” are diminutive kinds of “laughter”) and promises to be a quick bit of enjoyment. It takes far less time than a traditional crossword, which is often best worked at least two clues at a time. Like many exercise routines, the most effective are those which can always be done, no matter how busy one is. Wordle fits the bill. Secondly, to solve a Wordle doesn’t require any trivial knowledge; one must simply have a rudimentary American English lexicon. Third, Wordle’s six-guess limit lends the puzzle an element of risk and even danger. Finally, the built-in option to share one’s successes and failures easily on social media makes Wordle a form of self-expression in an isolated era.
For all these gains, Wordle also exposes some of our societal illnesses as well. In addition to showing us that we are far too busy (and stressed) for our own good, unlike the traditional crossword, Wordle severs lexemes from their meanings, and turns them into mere alphabetical strings. This feature has made possible the rather crude and barbarous variant, Absurdle, in which a malicious computer opponent generates the most unlikely combinations of letters, using previous human guesses as guides to deception. Thankfully, Mr. Wardle’s Wordle is far less nihilistic: he used only words that his partner Palak Shah would recognize, endowing the game with an interpersonal character that is felt as one plays. Palak’s name, I might mention, has five letters.
In sum, despite its partial severing of the sinew between word and meaning, both of which the traditional and cryptic crossword maintain, in its birth out of a loving relationship and intention for friends, Wordle reminds us that we still have a Word in common — or in Greek, a Logos. English-speaking Christians also know this Word by another five-letter name (it is the dearest Name, above all others). His name, I suppose, will probably not be the answer to this morning’s Wordle or tomorrow’s. But we may think on that name daily as we work the puzzles. And the Christian will confess that, known or unknown, he remains the source of all our words and wordles.