Merriam-Webster promoted a word game littered with offensive terms — the latest reckoning over language in the puzzle world
“Words either connect or divide us,” said Buckner Walker,58, who has repeatedly alerted Merriam-Webster to racist insults and other hurtful terms appearing in “Typeshift.” “When our dictionary infuses a pastime that promises joy with toxic language instead, it is retrogressive and powerfully divisive.”
In Merriam-Webster’s case, an effort by the 193-year-old dictionary brand to extend its audience reach through mobile gaming collided with its traditional role of registering terms and defining their meaning without passing judgment.
“We are dedicated descriptivists, not prescriptivists,” said Peter Sokolowski, a Merriam-Webster lexicographer and editor. “We’re not the language police telling you, ‘Yes, you can. No, you can’t.’ We are simply reporting the facts on how language is used.”
Now, however, facing the unfamiliar responsibility of not offending players, Merriam-Webster has also become the arbiter of which words to block from online puzzles. And as other purveyors of word games have discovered, decisions about whether to exclude racial slurs and other offensive terms — including those that might have benign meanings in certain contexts — risk alienating some players and raise challenging questions about power and perspective.