The Wordle phenomenon: Shashi Tharoor spells it out

The Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns have also enhanced the game’s appeal — it’s an ideal activity for those involuntary indoor hours that many don’t know how to fill



By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Tue 1 Feb 2022, 8:20 PM

Last updated: Tue 1 Feb 2022, 8:25 PM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent weeks, you’ve been obsessing over a word game on your phone or computer that involves five-letter words, the popping up of green, yellow and grey boxes, and globally-shared bragging rights. It’s called Wordle, and it’s been the word-game phenomenon of the decade.

Wordle, invented by software engineer Josh Wardle (its name is a pun on his surname) for his word-game fan girlfriend Palak Shah, is simple in concept: the programme issues a five-letter word of the day online, and players have to guess it within six tries. When you log on to https://www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle, the rules of the game are explained: if, when you guess a word, a letter you guess is in the word and is in the right place, the box turns green; if the letter occurs in the secret word, but is in the wrong place, the box turns yellow; and if the letter isn’t in the word at all, that box will turn grey. The keyboard beneath helpfully replicates those colours, so you can quickly see which letters are left. That’s the only “clue” that you’re given; you have to use your vocabulary and your smarts to guess what the secret word is from the remaining valid letters. You get six tries, and most of the time that’s more than enough.

Sounds ingenious, and it is. But for my family, the Wordle experience has caused a particular pang of nostalgia, because more than half a century ago, my father Chandran Tharoor, a passionate wordsmith and crossword, acrostic and Scrabble enthusiast, had invented this very game before the Internet era.

As I explained in multiple interviews in 2020 (well before Wordle was devised) around the release of my word-book Tharoorosaurus, in the late 1960s my father invented a word game for family car journeys, to keep his three obstreperous kids occupied. In his game, one of the passengers had to imagine a five-letter word and the others had to guess it within 20 attempts by trying out five-letter words and being told how many letters matched with the secret word.

Of course, there was no Internet in those days, and grids featuring grey, yellow, and green boxes weren’t available. Wordle’s major contribution is the use of tech: my father, sisters and I used to play it in our heads and it was much harder, but then Daddy gave us 20 chances. Because we had so many chances, though, we wasted a lot of turns. Our family soon evolved a formula of beginning our guesses with “stick”, “stack” and “stock” — three turns gone just to eliminate one or two vowels. You wouldn’t do that with Wordle. Part of the art is to take stock of the letters that have been eliminated with each guess and come up with words using only the remaining letters.

My sisters and I have been nostalgically musing about how much our father would have enjoyed this game. His grandchildren today, and their spouses, are constantly exchanging the outcomes of each day’s game on the family WhatsApp group, showing off how many (or ideally, how few) attempts they needed to guess the word of the day.

This “share” option has also increased the game’s popularity since players can now display the results without giving the game away. The Covid pandemic and associated lockdowns have also enhanced the game’s appeal — it’s an ideal activity for those involuntary indoor hours that many don’t know how to fill. When a killjoy using the handle @wordlinator started spoiling people’s fun by hacking the source-code of the game and revealing the next day’s word to players, the collective outrage led Twitter to ban @wordlinator altogether.

If you haven’t tried Wordle yet, do. And if you get hooked, as I did, and impatient with the fact that there’s only one puzzle a day, go to https://www.devangthakkar.com/wordle_archive/ to find a storehouse of past puzzles made by a fan, where you’ll find an archive of all the Wordle puzzles so far (there are more than 200). Another site, mywordle.me, lets you set your own Wordle challenges.

For me, it’s a rare thrill to relive those games with my father and sisters more than half a century ago. Enjoy!

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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