Friday 18 February 2022

Slave to the algorithm


I was a latecomer to Wordle, and snuck in just before the puzzle was taken on by The New York Times. It has kept me amused for a couple of weeks, even if I’ve been kicking myself for breaking my winning streak due to US English spelling (not-twigging-of) a little while ago.

Yesterday, though, I was completely bemused. I put in a five letter word, nothing obscure, and was told that this word was not on Wordle’s list. 

The word in question: “slave.” I genuinely wondered if this was a hiccough in the software, so tried on another device. Same result. Intrigued, I searched for an explanation and found news articles to the effect that there are various words that the new owners of Wordle don’t allow - the word for a female dog, for example, or “words associated with racism” such as “slave”. 

There were, no doubt, words for the idea of “slave” long before the English language evolved. When I think of the word, yes, the Atlantic slave trade comes to mind, but I also have associations with earlier history, Roman times, and the present day - I’ve often been asked to sign documents assuring potential project partners that my little one-woman show does not involve slavery in any part of the value chain.

Then there are the more abstract uses of the word - as in that glorious 1980s anthem by Grace Jones. Metaphorical uses, figures of speech, analogies, word-plays. It’s a word with many uses, meanings, nuanaces, contexts.

I’m a writer, and I’ve commented before about the homogenisation of language, as well as the cultural poverty (am I allowed to say poverty?) society is walking into with predictive text and suggested words and phrases. It’s bad enough when suggestions come as to which words you might like to use, but when words themselves disappear from lists and dictionaries? I know language changes all the time, but I am not talking about weird obscure historical words that have had no application for the last five hundred years here.

It’s just a game. OK, it is. But if it’s a game where I have to question every five-letter word and wonder whether it could offend someone, effectively censoring my own vocabularly, then I think I’d rather go back to the Internot and find my ancient Scrabble board game where I can use whatever words I see fit.

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