LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
A warning - this episode contains language some might find offensive.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: What are all those green and yellow boxes on your Twitter timeline? That is people posting their results from the daily word game Wordle, which has absolutely exploded in popularity in recent weeks.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Wordle is a game that gives you six chances to guess a five-letter word, giving you clues along the way about which letters are right and whether they're in the right places. And it can drive you mad.
I'm Stephen Thompson.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about Wordle on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
Joining us today from his home studio is Glen "Wordle" Weldon of NPR's Culture Desk.
HOLMES: Hi, Glen.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
HOLMES: And also here from her home on the West Coast is Aisha "Wordle" Harris. Hey, Aisha.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
What's up, my fellow Wordlers (ph)? Woo (ph).
HOLMES: Oh, my friends. We are here to discuss Wordle. Now, Wordle is not an app. It is a game you play in a browser. It's a pretty classic format, honestly, presented in a new way. You're trying to guess a five-letter word, and you're given six chances to guess the word, and each time you type a word as your guess, the clues are revealed. A green box means you have the correct letter in the correct slot. Yellow box means you have the correct letter, but it's in the wrong slot. And a gray or black box means the letter is not in the word at all. It's basically very similar to the old board-and-peg game Mastermind if you ever played that or the game show Lingo.
HOLMES: This version was built by a guy named Josh Wardle for his partner who loves word games, and now thousands of people - millions of people, perhaps - play it every day. It remains a pretty basic browser game that has all kinds of variations that have been made by other people. We'll talk about some of those. Stephen, you are a copy editor. You are a word-oriented person.
HOLMES: How are you at Wordle?
THOMPSON: I'm pretty good at Wordle. I was hesitant to try it at first because I genuinely thought, is there no way to play this game without sharing your result on Twitter?
THOMPSON: And I don't mean that as, like, a judgment of people who do share their results on Twitter.
WELDON: Yeah, I do.
THOMPSON: But I was slow to play it because I thought, I don't want Twitter to see if I struggle at this game. Well, it turns out you do not have to share your results on Twitter. And so...
WELDON: But it's so easy, Stephen. It's one big button.
THOMPSON: Well, I have resisted the temptation. And that temptation, I will admit, has been mighty. What I love about Wordle is that it's so pure. It is so contained. There is one puzzle per day, and everyone gets that puzzle. It doesn't have microtransactions. It doesn't have ads.
THOMPSON: It doesn't have ways for it to engulf your life the way other mobile games have engulfed my life - Pokemon Go. Wordle takes for me somewhere between two and 45 minutes...
THOMPSON: ...Every day. And usually when I do well at it, it is just a very quick little dopamine hit of, like, I have done a little puzzle. It was fun. I did well. Or it is something that I spend 45 minutes gnawing on and trying to unlock. But then when you solve it, assuming you do, it is enormously satisfying. So I have loved the way this game imposes limitations that make it more satisfying, and I think that's really one of the main keys. Also, the fact that it is not timed 'cause if it were timed, it would drive me batty.
HOLMES: I hear that. Aisha, how about you? How are you with Wordle? Do you like it?
HARRIS: I love it. I'm definitely a word game person. I loved "Wheel Of Fortune" as a kid. I also am a spelling bee person and a NYT crossword person. So - oh, and remember Words With Friends? Remember that?
THOMPSON: Oh, sure.
HARRIS: Loved that when that was, like, a big thing, and so this is right in my bag. And I'm actually pretty good at it. I feel like I usually solve it within 10 to 15 minutes at the most and usually between, like, four - like, probably eight minutes. There was one a week or two ago that was, like, shire, and I could not get that for the life of me.
WELDON: Got it in two.
HARRIS: Well, la-dee-da (ph).
WELDON: I'm just saying, it's a nerd word.
THOMPSON: Yeah, my white whale was knoll.
HARRIS: Oh, see; knoll - I was very proud of myself because the first guess I had, none of them were right.
THOMPSON: Yeah, me too.
HARRIS: And the second one, I got one letter. And then I was like, I somehow was able to - because the first word I got, I knew that all those letters didn't exist, and then I knew one of the letters in the second one existed, and then I was like, hmm, let's see what letters are left on this keyboard. And so I just kind of - I was like, it can't be knoll, but who knows?
HARRIS: And then it was knoll, and I was like, yay. To me, that was even more exciting than getting it, maybe, on the first or second try because I went from literally having no clues at all to getting it on the third. And so there's just this dopamine hit that happens. And I'm enjoying the ride while I can because I feel like the ads are coming, or I feel like Wardle himself, the man...
HARRIS: ...Is going to be like, I'm done with this, and then other people will swoop in.
HARRIS: And - I mean, people already have swept in. There are people who I saw who were playing the app version.
HARRIS: And people had to tell them, no, there is no app version; this isn't the original version.
HARRIS: I actually thought there was an app version after reading the articles about it at first. And then when I looked at it and saw that it didn't look like what I had seen in the articles, I was like, this doesn't seem right.
HARRIS: I love the simplicity of it.
HARRIS: So Wordle me. Wordle me all the time.
HOLMES: Excellent. Glen, I feel like I know your feelings about Wordle, despite the fact that I don't think we've ever talked about it.
HOLMES: Just tell me about you and Wordle.
WELDON: Oh, I dig it. But one of the things I dig about it a lot is how much insight I'm getting to my friends, who apparently start each day with a different word. What?
THOMPSON: Oh, I do that.
HARRIS: I do.
WELDON: That is anarchy. That is...
WELDON: I can't imagine. Like, I need consistency. I need stability. I need systems. I have systems in place, people. This is why - I'm going to tell you what my go-to word is every single day. It is diary - two very common consonants, three vowels. And I just think it helps to know if there is a Y sneaking around in that word somewhere because if there is and it's a five-letter word, it's often going to come at the end. So with that word, you wipe out huge swaths of the English language, right? Does that mean that I've started many days with five gray squares? Yeah, sure. Yes. Damn right that happens. But I welcome it. And I say that I start with the same word. There are some days I'm feeling a little frisky, right? Might mix it up, might start with dairy - switching the A and the I...
THOMPSON: OK, OK.
WELDON: ...'Cause that's a more common letter combination. We'll talk about hard mode, Linda. I didn't realize this game had a hard mode until I read your newsletter essay...
THOMPSON: Yeah, me too.
WELDON: ...About this game, but I've been playing on hard mode. Hard mode is basically you have to use every piece of knowledge the game gives you. It won't let you just throw a word away, but I've never thrown a word away.
THOMPSON: Me neither.
THOMPSON: Same. Why? Yeah.
WELDON: This is hard-won knowledge. You don't toss that aside. You don't leave a man behind. You don't toss a word away.
WELDON: That said, I have missed it completely several days, and it's always for the single stupidest of reasons, which is, in my head, I always forget what the colors mean.
THOMPSON: Oh, OK.
WELDON: Every day, I have to check. Every single day, I have to check. And related to that...
WELDON: ...I will say that the makers are to be commended for making a colorblind option with high-contrast colors, blue and orange. That's how I play it. I still mix up the colors because my brain works that way. But...
WELDON: ...I dig it. I dig it. I dig it. The number of times I've consistently thought that the letter belongs there when what it's telling me in each time is, no, the letter does not belong here, you idiot - that can break your whole day in half.
WELDON: That's not a good feeling.
HOLMES: So the thing about hard mode, if we haven't been clear enough about it yet, is that, for example, let's say you did do diary, and it told you, yes, there's a D in the word. And then you decided, well, I just want to know a bunch of other letters. I just want to take a guess. I know this isn't the answer because I know it has a D in it, but I'm going to guess balmy or something like that - you can't do that on hard mode. You can't, like, hedge your bets and say, I'm just going to throw a bunch more letters at this to try to get more information. You have to actually continue to work with the information that you have, which most people do anyway. But the only thing it does if you toggle on hard mode is that when you post your result, it comes with a little asterisk, and that indicates that you played on hard mode. But I think there is a question, a live question, as to whether hard mode is actually harder.
THOMPSON: No, I don't think it is.
HOLMES: It's a little riskier. Like, if your goal was to always, always get it in six, then hard mode is harder because an easier way to do it is just throw a bunch of letters in there, and then you have enough room. But if you want to get it in the shortest number possible, hard mode is not harder. Hard mode is the way to go. Now, this is where we get into the weeds about Wordle strategy because for me, I don't always start with the same word, but I do pretty much always take the same approach, which is I try to narrow down vowels first. Five letters is not that many.
HOLMES: So you can sometimes try to figure out, like, if I know that there's only an O in it, then it probably is one of those things that has, like, two consonants and then an O and then two more consonants. Like, that's the kind of way that I think about it. But I do agree with Glen that a Y can be a very tricky thing. And I mentioned this in the newsletter, but my other big thing is trying to figure out what the last letter could potentially be. I also want to hear about whether any of you play any of the variants. Glen, you said you play some of the variants that people have invented.
WELDON: Actually, I think I'm moving on to those because Lewdle, L-E-W-D-L-E, which is naughty words, and Queerdle, which is queer and, I would have to say, queer-adjacent words - both are empirically more difficult because, A, the words tend to be longer, B, the subset of words at your disposal to guess are much narrower, but mostly because you spend your entire time second-guessing the puzzle creator's subjective sense...
WELDON: ...Of what constitutes a naughty word...
WELDON: ...What constitutes a queer word. Lewdle, at least, does not accept any words that aren't at least a bit filthy, so there's no throwing away your guesses. You can't do that. You really have to come up with dirty words for each guess. And Queerdle is great, but you can really quibble with the rubric here because one day it came down to disco or dildo...
WELDON: ...Which is - if you think about it, it's the great queer conundrum, really.
WELDON: Disco or dildo - it's the queer human condition.
THOMPSON: The binary with which you are presented.
WELDON: (Laughter) That's right.
HARRIS: I always thought they just went hand in hand, but I don't know that.
HOLMES: Which was it. Which was it?
WELDON: Depends on the disco. It was, in fact, dildo.
HARRIS: Well, that's where Lewdle and Queerdle...
WELDON: Yeah, they kind of come together.
HARRIS: ...Like, come together (laughter).
HOLMES: I will say, if you want one that is definitely more frustrating - which, you know, to some people it's like, why would I want it to be more frustrating? - I have played one called Absurdle, and it's just like you would think. They call it adversarial Wordle.
HOLMES: And what it does is, as you guess, it changes the word so that you get farther away from it. Now, all your information is still correct. The clues it's giving you are still right. But it will change the word that it's thinking of to make it farther away from your guess. It always comes down to words that have, like, Ks and Xs and, you know, the stuff you would naturally guess last. So typically, instead of taking, like, you know, three or four in a Wordle, it'll take, like, seven or eight. Like, you'll still get there. There's still only so many letters in a five-letter word. But it's extremely frustrating.
THOMPSON: Sounds great.
HARRIS: Yeah, I don't need that in my life.
HOLMES: It is way harder to get there, and it does make me much more crazy. Aisha and Stephen, have either of you played any variants?
HARRIS: I haven't. I've just stuck with this for now.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I'm OCD enough that if you present me with an alternative version of this game where you can play it over and over and over again and it just feeds you...
THOMPSON: ...Five-letter word after five-letter word - if I could play Wordle on an unlimited basis - which look, I could easily find a version of this that just...
HOLMES: Right. They do exist.
THOMPSON: ...Endlessly regenerates new five-letter puzzles. I don't want that. I want the purity and the simplicity and the containment that comes with it. For me, where this game is most useful is - I think, Linda, you and I are very similar in this way. We are wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night people.
THOMPSON: And when you are a wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night person, it's very easy to get up at 3 a.m. and start doom-scrolling. Wordle engages your brain, gives your brain something to do that is not keeping you awake. So it's engaging without angry-ing it up.
THOMPSON: And so I don't want alternatives to Wordle. I don't want 15 other - I mean, I - yes, I will probably play at least Lewdle and probably Queerdle. But it's not going to be good for me.
THOMPSON: I think the way this game exists right now is good for me.
WELDON: Right. It's good for the game, too, because if Wordle gave you the option of going into some archive and playing days and days and days of this game all in one sitting, it wouldn't have nearly the cachet, nearly the stickiness that it does.
HOLMES: Spelling Bee is the same way.
HOLMES: The NYT Spelling Bee is the same way.
HOLMES: People talk every day about solving the same one.
WELDON: Yep. This is the age of bingeing. You can't binge it. It's HBO, not Netflix. And this is what has replaced the water cooler in the break room, like, the shareability of it, the fact that we're all doing it together.
WELDON: I do have a feeling - and I want to hear what you guys think. This is going to burn out. What Pokemon GO, Stephen, was to July 2016 I think this is going to be to January 2022 because Wordle fatigue started the day after Wordle was created. You started seeing it - you know, soon as somebody posted those boxes, you'd be seeing, oh, I'm so sick of those boxes.
THOMPSON: So what you're saying, Glen, is that in September of 2027...
WELDON: You'll still be playing.
THOMPSON: ...Wordle will consume roughly 80% of my free time?
WELDON: Yes. You'll still be playing, Stephen, but the rest of us probably won't. I mean, five letters - as you say, Linda, five letters isn't that much. And look; the first time I did it, I solved it in three. I was pretty smug about it. I shared that immediately because it was so easy to do. That's the thing. But then I felt bad about sharing it.
HARRIS: I have yet to share my Wordle and I've been playing for - I don't know - two, 2 1/2 weeks now. And part of it is because I don't want to be that person. I also just feel like I'm doing this for myself.
WELDON: Yeah. Imagine that.
HARRIS: Like, I've never shared my Spelling Bee either. I just don't feel the need to. But every day now - I can't go a day on Twitter without seeing at least three people being like, I'm so sick of these squares. Stop square - and I'm just like, you know what?
THOMPSON: Oh, my God.
HARRIS: Let people have their fun.
THOMPSON: I'm so sick of so many worse things.
WELDON: Scroll pass. Scroll pass.
HARRIS: Yeah. It was just like, I don't complain when everyone's doing their NFL play-by-play on Twitter...
HARRIS: ...And I don't want to see that stuff. Like, I don't care.
THOMPSON: Gee, sorry, Aisha.
HARRIS: But, you know, it's interesting to see the backlash. And I agree with Glen that it's probably going to burn out unless the game evolves in some way, if it goes beyond five letters, you know? I would be happy if it stayed this way and it was just a time, a moment, in our lives.
HARRIS: And not everything needs to last forever. Some things can be ephemeral. And we can just enjoy it.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) So I actually have a quick question for Aisha and Linda. Glen, you said that there have been a couple of times where you've been stumped. You've been playing the game longer than I have.
THOMPSON: I've been playing for about a week, week and a half. And every one of mine I've gotten in three, four or five guesses. And that is starting to stress me out because at some point, I'm not going to get it. It is just absolutely mathematically so that I will at some point, like, fail to solve the puzzle. Does a streak stress you out?
HOLMES: I assume I may miss one some - at some point. I don't really care.
HARRIS: Yeah. I've missed two. And for whatever reason, I go into this just with, like, pure chaos. I just decide off the fly which word I'm going to use.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Me, too.
HARRIS: I don't plan it out. I haven't even done the strategy of the Y or whatever, which is very unlike me in any - most games.
HARRIS: But for this, I'm just like - I'm riding the wave.
HARRIS: I feel like the turtle from "Finding Nemo." I'm just chilling.
HARRIS: It's my Zen.
HOLMES: Nice. Yeah.
HARRIS: It is my moment of Zen.
HOLMES: Well, if you like Wordle, we want to hear how you feel about it, how you play it, what your strategy is. Find us at facebook.com/pchh. Or tweet us at @PCHH. All right. When we come back, it's going to be time to talk about what is making us happy this week.
All right. It is time for our favorite segment of this week and every week, what is making us happy this week. Stephen Thompson, what's making you happy this week?
THOMPSON: What is making me happy is being one-fifth of the way to completing my New Year's resolution to read five books this year.
HOLMES: Nice (laughter).
THOMPSON: I know that was a very modest resolution. I have read my first book of 2022. It is a book that I had skimmed parts of five years ago, put aside and just re-picked up and read in its entirety. It is "Party Of One" by Dave Holmes...
HOLMES: Oh, good pick.
WELDON: Ho, hey, good choice. Excellent choice.
THOMPSON: ...A pop culture memoir by a friend of the show, a person whose writing I know I love, writing the kind of book that I could see myself one day writing. So it is very approachable to me in absolutely every sense of the word. The pop culture references are literally identical to my own. It is just wonderful. He is such a warm and funny and generous writer, self-deprecating and silly. And it is just a marvelous little piece of memoir storytelling that I just loved and that I aspire to emulate if I ever get off my rear end and write my own book one of these days. My next book, by the way, is chosen in order to remind me that there are types of books that I will never be able to write. My next book that I'm picking up is "Lincoln In The Bardo" by George Saunders...
WELDON: Hey, also a great one.
THOMPSON: ...Which, I have been told, is perfect in every way.
HOLMES: Very nice.
THOMPSON: So I just want the world to know that when I said I was going to start reading in 2022 - I have already read a whole, entire book.
WELDON: That's amazing.
HOLMES: Very nice. So that is "Party Of One" by Dave Holmes. Thank you very much, Stephen Thompson. Aisha Harris, what is making you happy this week?
HARRIS: There's an article from a couple of weeks ago in The Atlantic by Yair Rosenberg. It's called "Your Bubble Is Not The Culture." And I thought this was just a really smart article that is, in one way, very specifically written for critics like us about the dangers of assuming too much when it comes to how we assess where the culture is at now. So he uses a few examples, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, "Harry Potter," as well as "Parks And Rec" and cites a few recent articles from various publications where all of those things have been declared, quote-unquote, "dead." People are sick of Lin-Manuel. People are turned off by J.K. Rowling and her anti-trans rhetoric, all of those things. And he's like, you know what? Most people probably don't even know that J.K. Rowling has said these things. Lin-Manuel has a hit on his hands with all the Disney stuff he's done, and we need to, you know, caution ourselves against thinking, you know, we're critics. And we spend all of our time online. We also spend all of our time watching things. So we can sometimes forget that people don't watch things in the same way that we do.
And so I just really appreciated this article. It was something that I'd kind of been thinking about in the back of my mind for a while, but it really put into a really crystal clear way the things that critics can sometimes get wrong, even though I still maintain "Don't Look Up," not a good movie and going to stand by that. I'm with you, Stephen.
THOMPSON: But also I clearly missed the boat on "Encanto."
WELDON: Good. I'm glad to hear you say this.
THOMPSON: I thought it was fine, but I clearly need to go back and revisit that movie based on how it's been received.
HARRIS: Yeah, yes. So anyway, the article is "Your Bubble Is Not The Culture" by Yair Rosenberg, and it's in The Atlantic.
HOLMES: Thank you very much, Aisha Harris. Glen Weldon, what is making you happy this week, sir?
WELDON: Well, it turns out there's another game I can play on my phone in a browser that makes me feel even stupider than Wordle does on my six-guess days. It's called Wiki Trivia. You can find it at wikitrivia.tomjwatson.com. It is a historical timeline game. So at the bottom of the screen, you see a randomly generated historical event or person on a timeline and the year it happened, the year they were born. Above that, in the middle of your screen, you see a different randomly generated historical event or person without an accompanying year. So you slide the event in the middle of the screen down onto the timeline before or after the thing that's already down there.
Easy enough when the timeline has, like, Guyuk Khan, the third great Khan of the Mongol Empire born in 1206 and what you have up in the box above it is hero of Alexandria, ancient Greek mathematician and engineer. Ancient Greek - context clues, people - that's got to go before, right? So you slide him down. You place him on the timeline before, and it reveals to you that, yes, of course, hero of Alexandria was born in the year 10.
But it keeps getting harder as your timeline fills up and the gaps between events get smaller and smaller. Was Clark Gable born before the founding of Australia's Northern Territory or after it? Turns out, they're only 10 years apart - 1901 for Gable, 1911 for the Northern Territory. You only get three wrong answers before the game cuts you off. My longest streak is an entirely pitiable 16 events, and sometimes, it's a real jerk. I am not good at this game. And, you know, Lord knows up to this point, my life has been founded on the principle of if I'm not good at something immediately, I give up on it so...
WELDON: Because I do not care to be challenged in any way. And this game is challenging that very basic tenet in a very small way, right? So, you know, it's possibly through a very small way I'm becoming a better person. Maybe I'm growing. That is wikitrivia.tomjwatson.com.
HOLMES: All right. Thank you very much. So what is making me happy this week is a thing I'm so excited to share with our PCHH listeners. If you have listened to the show for a while, you are familiar with our regular panelist Ronald Young Jr.
HOLMES: He recently showed up as a guest on a new show on Peacock called "True Story," hosted by Ed Helms and Randall Park. It is a show in which they are just kind of sitting in a living room, and a guest will come in and unwind a story from their life. And while the guest tells the story, they sort of prod them and ask questions, and a reenactment of the story plays out with regular actors with whom you may be familiar playing the parts of the people in the story. And recently, Ronald Young Jr. appeared to tell them the story of him sneaking out to go to prom when he was in high school. He had very strict parents. They were both military and religious in their orientation. So he decided to sneak out and go to the prom, and I would not tell you too much of this because it would ruin it. It would be so unfair. So you get to hear him. He is so charming and...
WELDON: Damn right.
THOMPSON: Love him so much.
HOLMES: ...Terrific telling this story - so charming. And his parents are played by Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold in this tale of him kind of trying to outsmart them and get out of the house and get to the prom. And it is so suspenseful as you kind of listen to him explain what happened and you just will sit there being, like, (chanting) Ronald, Ronald, Ronald.
HARRIS: How did I miss this? Oh, my goodness.
THOMPSON: Yeah, I have to see this.
HOLMES: It is one of those things that is a casualty of how much stuff is on that shows on a service like Peacock can kind of be on and if they're not, like, the subject of a tremendous amount of promotion, they can slip by - at least they can slip by me. And as I said, if you listen to the show, you know Ronald, you know how charming he is, and this is a great opportunity to see a whole, whole new side of him. And I'm absolutely delighted, and you should watch it. It is what is making me happy this week. It is - you can find it on Peacock.
WELDON: Great pick.
HOLMES: And that is the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me @lindaholmes. You can find Stephen @idislikestephen. Aisha is @craftingmystyle. And Glen is @ghweldon. You can find our editor, Jessica Reedy, @jessica_reedy. Our producer is Candice Lim @thecandicelim and Rommel Wood @blergisphere. And you can find our producer Mike Katzif, as always, @mikekatzif - K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. Thanks to all of you for being here.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you.
WELDON: Thank you.
HOLMES: And thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week when we will be highlighting some standout films from this year's Sundance Film Festival.
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