E is for Epiphany: Wordle and Revelation
We're off by a week now, but in this belated installment (thanks for waiting!), we're deeping word games.
In the beginning was the Wordle. And the Wordle was God and the Wordle was with God, until Dordle and Quordle and Subwaydle and Taylordle sauntered along. A godless number of copycat options now haunt the internet, and the devil himself is an answer left unplumbed. After all, how is anyone supposed to sleep peacefully at night without first determining the territory outlined in Worldle, or guessing the Semantle, a Wordle variant which asks its daily players to guess their way towards any word from the most popular 5,000 words in English?
A post exploring Wordle and its begotten might go in lots of directions. We could do a little callback to "B is for Bootleg" and talk about how Wordle derivatives play into a larger trend of ripoff mobile games, like Kevin Nguyen did briefly in The Verge. Exceedingly attractive still is the idea of rambling about Semantle specifically; the word association game, in which players Marco-Polo their way towards a secret goal word as the site decrees their guesses hot or "cold," runs with the help of word2vec, a neural network model that has been shown to encode gender bias (i.e., if Semantle's daily goal word was "philosopher," according to the hyperlinked research paper, "male" might register on the game as semantically closer than "female" because the algorithm determining a guess word's proximity to the hidden word's meaning is trained on a trove of data which may contain gender bias itself. If the game were ever to take off in the way Wordle has taken off, its creator might want to address the potential for biased associations at some point — no such disclaimer currently exists on the FAQ). However tempting such digressions may be, the path of righteousness calls me: it's time to get divine.
"Divine" comes to the English language from the Latin "divinus," meaning "of a God." The word is a triple threat — an adjective, a noun, and a verb. "To divine" (according to Wiktionary) is to "guess or discover (something) through intuition or insight." Some who divine might practice divination, the act of foreseeing the future or interpreting signs (like Sybil Trelawney in Harry Potter). But not all divining happens at the Oracle — low-stakes divining can also occur on your phone in the dark at 12:01, as you hope to get lucky with a five letter miracle.
The linguistic connection between "divine" and "divining" seems to suggest that lucky guesses are sent to us from God — they're "divine inspiration," so to speak. Recent scientific research has made breakthroughs explaining the neuroscientific processes involved in educated guesses or inferences, but as far as I can tell from a few (albeit cursory) Google searches, science is still unsure what neural pathways become engaged in the type of mostly-random guessing required to broach games of Wordle or Semantle. Absent a scientific explanation, a divine explanation feels as good a guess as any for how our brains take stabs at the unknown. A particularly good guess can feel like a gift from on high; finding the solution to a tricky puzzle is revelatory.
Games and God might seem at first like they exist in opposing spheres, but while researching this post, I discovered that "the divine" and "divining" overlap more than one might initially assume. On The American Bible Challenge, game show contestants buzz in to answer questions about the Bible (if this sounds like an uninteresting premise to you, you might be shocked to learn that The American Bible Challenge is the highest rated original program in the history of the Game Show Network). The American Bible Challenge and its Scripps Spelling Bee influenced cousin, The National Bible Bee, are trivia oriented games rather than wordplay games, however, and one can find much earlier examples of religion and wordplay intersecting. Rabbis who practice the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah believe that divine meanings can be derived from the Torah by looking for acrostics and anagrams found within the original text, and many words in the Torah are treated as ciphers for deeper religious meanings. In the Middle Ages, palindromes were believed to thwart the devil — in an 1899 article from the St. Louis Medical and Surgical Journal), an author explained how the "Sator Square," a famous four-way palindrome first observed in Pompeii, deflected evil:
The virtue of the palindrome was never doubted in the Middle Ages… It is a branch of demonology. In every charm or patter it was obligatory to leave a place for the devil… The sentence Sator arepo tenet opera rotas was put in expressly for the Father of Evil. If he entered at the front end of the sentence he was able to steer a straight course as far as the letter "n" in "tenet,” which is in the exact center of the sentence; from that point onward he went over the same ground he had already traversed, going back letter by letter in the reverse order, and coming out eventually at the very point at which he entered. This was a practical joke on the devil… no matter how hard he tried he could never do anything but come out where he went in, and was therefore unable to work any evil.
Compared to Kabbalastic meanings and intricate palindromes, Wordle is extraordinarily simple wordplay — the game has nothing to do with anagrammed words or secret meanings behind individual letters, and all to do with whether letters are included, excluded, misplaced, or repeated. But the aesthetics of a nearly finished Wordle puzzle — which looks like a Wheel of Fortune board or a Hangman — can't help but remind me a little of religious words which are too sacred to be completed. In Hebrew school, for example, we were instructed to write G-d instead of God; in other religious study, readers may encounter the "tetragrammaton" — the four letter name of God spelled YHWH with the vowels left out. With letters omitted, the word remains profane. Revelation occurs by completing what's missing.
In 1969, the experimental French writer Georges Perec published a novel called La Disparition, translated into English as A Void. Perec was a member of the French literary collective Oulipo, a group which experimented with avant-garde writing techniques; Perec was also an orphan, having lost both parents in the Second World War. His father, a soldier, died from gunfire; his mother likely died at Auschwitz.
In the original French and notably in its English translation, La Disparition, a novel which follows a group of people searching for their missing friend, Anton Vowl, contains not one instance of the letter "E." La Disparition is a lipogram, a work that avoids the use of a single letter or group of letters. At 300 pages, La Disparition is the longest lipogram in existence. And without "e," scholar Warren Motte explains (in an essay I, for the life of me, cannot find a link for anywhere!), "Perec cannot say the words père ["father"], mère ["mother"], parents ["parents"], famille ["family"] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec… A strange and compelling parable of survival becomes apparent in the novel, too, if one is willing to reflect on the struggles of a Holocaust orphan trying to make sense out of absence, and those of a young writer who has chosen to do without the letter that is the beginning and end of écriture ["writing"]." Other scholars have noted that the French word for "them" is "eux"; the dedication to W, Perec's 1975 semi autobiographical novel which includes an allegorical depiction of life at Nazi camps, reads "For E."
A swiftly completed Wordle might approximate religiosity. A consummated name of God contains revelation. But the central void of La Disparition might suggest the godlessness of loss — of loss so great it even changes language.