On the surface, there are few word games that would seem to need active editing less than Wordle. After all, the daily Wordle puzzle boils down to just a single five-letter word. Picking that word each day doesn’t exactly require the skill or artistry of, say, crafting an entire crossword puzzle or designing a more algorithmic game like Knotwords.
Despite this, on Monday, The New York Times announced that “Wordle finally has an editor.” Which kind of leads to an obvious follow-up question: What does a Wordle editor actually do all day?
The answer, it turns out, is more than you might think. In a conversation with Ars Technica, newly named Wordle editor Tracy Bennett said that picking the daily Wordle word involves balancing difficulty, variety, and potential player frustration, while keeping an eye out for derogatory hidden meanings and player complaints.
A word curator
To start, Bennett clarified that “Wordle editor” is not a full-time job in and of itself. Bennet has been an associate puzzles editor at the Times since 2020, and that role continues to fill most of her professional time. Editing Wordle currently takes up an average of 30 minutes to an hour a day, Bennett said, a “startup rate” that will help “build a [word] list for the year going forward into the future.”
Working from Josh Wardle’s original list of about 2,300 five-letter words (which were previously assigned randomly to different days), Bennett said she starts by just “looking at the list and seeing things pop out… I’m still choosing words in a kind of arbitrary way, but also in a well-informed way. … I would call it intuitive, but it’s really based on years of experience working with words from other puzzles.”
Unlike a completely random sorting algorithm, Bennett said she’s focused on making sure a week’s Wordle solutions are “varied lexically and semantically. … I don’t want to have a week’s worth of nouns, and I don’t want to have a week’s worth of words that start with A, that sort of thing.”
Bennett said her process might include scheduling a week’s worth of words in a one-day session, then spending time over the next four or five days “researching the etymologies and histories of those words as carefully as I can.” That kind of deep research is key, Bennett said, in order “to see if there are any secondary meanings that are unsavory, or potentially offensive or hurtful.”
“Even if it’s defensible as a legitimate word aside from that secondary meaning, we have so many words to choose from that it’s not necessary to take that chance and choose that word,” she continued. “Even if I assume that I know what it means and that there are no secondary meanings, I still look.”
Bennett said there were two recent Wordle solutions (which ran before she officially took over on November 7) that received some complaints from users for potentially offensive hidden meanings. She wouldn’t specify those words to Ars, as “they aren’t obvious to everyone as derogatory terms, but when you do look them up, you see that it’s there and it’s findable. And if that’s the case, we’re probably just going to not run this.”
Then there are words that aren’t offensive in and of themselves, but still might come across as inappropriate sitting next to the news of the day. That was the case in May when “FETUS” was randomly set to run as the daily Wordle solution just as news of the Supreme Court’s abortion-related Dobbs decision was leaking.
Bennett said the NYT puzzle team had “mixed opinions” about what to do about that happenstance, “but ultimately, it was decided [it] could be … upsetting or might feel like it was chosen intentionally, or be suspect in some way. … There is an element of scheduling the words that is an editorial issue, too, so that’s something that I would want to be thinking about, if the timing is right.”