Every word played in Letterpress is emphatic, an all-caps and bold-face exclamatory statement. Every word feels like a striking statement. A former editor of mine, in his first word ever played against me, went with “SINNERS.” Another writer friend and I traded back and forth demonic references: “BEELZEBUB” she said. “HELL” I exclaimed. “HELLCAT” she replied.
Letterpress challenges players to capture the majority of a grid of letters by spelling words with as many letters as possible and surrounding letters to lock them down. There are moments of imaginative wordplay that make you wonder if your opponent is trying to tell you something. They provide temptation to play around with words and their meanings rather than score. But early in my time with Letterpress, one particular word played by an opponent caused me to do a double-take:
Look, I’m not exactly a prude. I am a relatively staunch evangelical Christian, but I don’t go around asking people not to cuss in front of me. I am not really offended by the few words we have dubbed “profanity”. I spend enough time on Twitter to be used to all sorts of foul language. I don’t really think of people as worse than me for using coarse language.
Personally, I don’t use them because I like the idea of words that are mostly off-limits, that pack so much intensity and punch that to use them casually is akin to hunting a baby deer with a bazooka. I like having them available when we really need them – when tragedy strikes or when I encounter outrageously immoral and hurtful behavior. In the meantime, I hold my dirty words close to my chest. Like Atticus Finch and his rifle, I pull them out only when absolutely necessary, and it’s not a happy occasion.
iPhone word games don’t qualify as one of those moments, so I try to avoid spelling out any of the big guns in the midst of even the most difficult games. It is very likely that my lack of willingness to spell out “SHI..” um you get the idea – anyway, it’s likely that that’s what makes me such a bad wordsmith. Oh, and I am. So far I have lost 90% of my Letterpress games, a pattern that has emerged from a long history of losing at word games. For a writer, I’m really bad with words.
It’s not that these words don’t lurk inside of my mind. When I play Letterpress, they emerge instantly from the grid, mocking me mercilessly and tempting me to sin against my own conscience. I see racial and sexist slurs, scatological synonyms, sexual action verbs. I close my eyes and look at the screen again.
Oh, there we go: “FOOT”. Good job me.
So it was a little bit jarring when I brought up the latest move in a Letterpress game with a friend only to see the word “FUCKING” in big, bold letters across a sterile and minimalist game board. “I’m sorry, I had to!” he tweeted at me. I totally understood. I have dealt with that temptation before, and I fault no one for giving in or not viewing it so much as a temptation. But for me it presented a problem: do I continue playing on an uneven playing field, or do we bring out the big guns and start a mother-effing arms race?
I played “SKULKING”, because that was just a good word. I gulped and played “SMUTS”. Then I backed down and went for “CUDDLY.” I am not exactly the Andrew Dice Clay of video games or whatever.
I remember in middle school when cuss words were a relatively new concept. I would try to fit in with my friends by saying cuss words in organic ways as if I said them all the time and was totally okay with that. “What the shit?” I would say. “Hey, get the ass over here,” I would insist. “Ugh, it smells like damn poop.” My friends just looked at me in dismay.
I picked up this one habit from a friend, where when something kind of shocking or annoying happens to me, I say “Ohhh fuuuuhhhhhhhh” and stop short of the two consonants at the end. It feels like a more edgy version of just going “oh fiddlesticks” or “well fudge!” In actuality it’s little more than the clear expression of the desire to actually say this word I am not allowed to say. It’s an expression of limitation. I am not allowed to say those last two consonants. It’s against the rules.
Some people value being totally free: to say what they want, to do what they want, to feel what they want. I value guidance, authority and limitation. I don’t trust myself to just blurt out every single word I want to say. To me, restraint gives words and actions deeper meaning. Maybe saying these words would help me to fit in, or to express myself better. Maybe they would help me in this word game. But when I was in middle school I learned that some words can only be used well when they are fully understood. And to truly understand some of these words, I’ve got to suffer a greater tragedy than losing at a word game.
About the Author:
Richard Clark is the managing editor of Gamechurch, the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, and a regular columnist at Unwinnable.