Wordle, First Things, and The New York Times

Date: March 30, 2022

The readership of First Things is a significant constituency, almost certainly, right of center politically, religiously, and culturally. This is a group of readers who hold degrees and have some significant influence. R.R. Reno has been the Editor since the passing of Richard John Neuhaus (the founder) and has positioned the magazine as a voice for those who believe some sort of cultural resistance is necessary to the “woke” left, who make life difficult for those Americans who still believe in patriotism, traditional marriage, and using – what they think are – appropriate pronouns for one’s gender.

In the April 2022 issue, the editor disclosed to his readership the shocking news that The New York Times has cancelled the word “slave.” He made this discovery by talking to a friend who was playing Wordle. This friend ‘was surprised to find that the version of Wordle now owned by The Times does not recognize “slave” as a word.’ Reno goes on: ‘One can imagine the moralistic nominalism behind the excision of the word from the game’s dictionary: If we get rid of “slave,” then we have eliminated slavery. Or maybe the thinking is therapeutic and goes like this: Those who are enslaved feel humiliated when called “slave,” and using the word might encourage them to internalize their condition. Better, therefore, to speak of “enslaved persons.”’

Now, I did point out to the editors that I tried the word “slave” and the game accepted it immediately. It is, I suppose, possible that The New York Times had added the word back. However, I suspect that the editor did not fact-check for himself the veracity of his friend’s report. Nor did he ask one of his tech-friendly staff to check whether this is the case. Instead, he entered into an imaginative diatribe about the crazy “woke” deliberations behind the decision. If he had taken just a moment, then he would have found the word “slave” was accepted. None of this speculation was true.

This does matter. All Americans should tread carefully around words like “slavery” and “slave.” It is an evil that continues to cast a long and deeply damaging shadow over race relations in the United States. And those of us who use the phrase “enslaved persons” are simply trying to put the Imago Dei – the image of God – front and center. First and foremost, these were human beings created by God, redeemed by Christ, and to be honored for their humanity. These were persons who were enslaved, not just slaves. They should not be exclusively defined by their status in a cruel and unjust system of ruthless exploitation.

In addition, this story will gain traction. Readers of First Things will assume its veracity. The joke will be made around countless dining tables. Other news outlets will pick up the story. They will assume its veracity and muse on the ridiculousness of The New York Times. So, the body politic will be infected. Rumor will create perceptions of the “other side” that will continue to undermine our capacity to be civil and mutually engaged.

Strangely, to fact-check this story would have been so easy. After all, Wordle does not require a subscription nor an app. You just go to the website and type the word in. But, instead, the editor saw the opportunity for – rather tasteless – humor. And in so doing, create perceptions that continue to damage America and add to our increasing polarization. Little things do matter. We all need to aspire to represent the other fairly and accurately.

The Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, Ph.D.
Dean and President

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