The bee in my bonnet

Pegasus would be very puzzled with my WhatsApp chats. My friend M and I often exchange one-word messages, random words that follow no discernible pattern.


Suspicious as it might seem, these are not codewords for nefarious activities.

It’s just our daily dose of outrage for words not accepted by The New York Times Spelling Bee word game.

The Bee has been around since 2018 but it really took off during the COVID lockdown. I too was one of its pandemic followers. Lynn Enright theorises in Grazia that in these bleak times, the dopamine rush of going from ‘solid’ level to ‘nice’ to ‘great’ has been positively addictive.

Relatively common?

The rules are simple — there are seven letters including one central letter. You try to make as many words as you can of at least four letters, always including the central letter. Any letter can be used multiple times. The longer the word, the more the points. A pangram word that uses all the letters at least once delivers an extra boost which novelist Laura Lippman describes in Slate as “a colonic for (her) neural pathways.” If you accumulate enough points you get the coveted Genius badge. Even if it’s just timepass (a word the Bee will never recognise), it feels intellectual. It’s like a word safari where you try to hunt down every four-plus legged word hiding in the jungle of letters. If you get every single word possible, you can humblebrag about being a Queen Bee.

Except it’s not really every single word possible — as we know CARYATID and HAMMAM and FENNEC are too exotic for this hive. You can complain to Beeatrice Buzzby and you’ll get an auto-responder saying the puzzle is “hand-curated to focus on relatively common words, with a couple of tough ones here and there” and that it tends to avoid “hyper-specific” words that might only be familiar to a geologist or a physician. But “relatively common” to whom? As Adam Turner, a user on Quora, irked that phthalate (an ester of salt) was not accepted, fumed “How ubiquitous is hexane? Or cocii, for that matter?”

For the record, I don’t know phthalate myself but I feel Turner’s pain. I shot off an email to Beeatrice Buzzby myself the day I discovered the Bee did not accept TIFFIN. It irked me that it was okay with MOHEL (someone who circumcises Jewish boys) but oblivious to TIFFIN. That felt like selective cultural blindness. I felt foolish arguing with an auto-responder and my message had no effect. Apparently the 25-year-old puzzle editor Sam Ezersky once admitted to missing out on a word that should have been accepted, like CLICKBAIT. But TIFFIN has not been so lucky. Neither has RAFFIA even though an irate user sent a package of raffia palm fibre to the bemused crossword puzzles editor. There is now a Twitter account called ‘Not a Spelling Bee Word’ for grumblers like M and me.

Self-righteous pleasure

But in my year-plus relationship with Beeatrice, I’ve come to slowly understand her. She’s prudish (no sex please, no swearing, no BOYTOY) and politically correct (no racial epithets, no BIMBO sexism). Her religion is clear (BIBLE is kosher but ALLAH is not). She’s a stickler for rules about hyphens and spaces (Yes, TAN LINE is technically two words and PEE-PEE is hyphenated but we don’t need to be so anal about it). She’s privileged and does not worry about BAILABLE offences and FILLABLE forms. She’s mildly woke (think ANTIFA and MAHATMA) and she considers herself worldly because she’s okay with NAAN/ RAITA. But CHAAT is still a little too out there. However, CONGEE is criminal erasure in a world where pantabhaat has reached Australian Masterchef.

Also, Beeatrice is probably white. TIFFIN is not allowed, but HATHA (as in yoga) is! How much whiter can one get?

That’s also the reason why it really rankles when I miss a word that comes from my own cultural heritage. The day I don’t get ROTI or RAITA I feel chagrined for missing out on the few Indian cultural crumbs Ms. Buzzby has deemed bee-worthy. But I also realise that much as I want to reach Genius every day, there is a secret self-righteous pleasure in finding words that didn’t pass the bee test. M and I know that a Spelling Bee that won’t accept HAMMAM or TAMARI will never accept MOMO or LADDOO but we still whine about those anyway.

Perhaps it just feels good to complain about something other than mask hygiene, R0 numbers and breakthrough infections in these pandemic times. But the real test to see if this bee is keeping up with the buzz of a changing world will be when COVIDIOT makes the cut.

Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know, likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 6:14:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-bee-in-my-bonnet/article36510266.ece

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