So, I was playing Scrabble with a friend the other night when she put down the word "ago" in a place that opened up the corner spot to me. I added a D to make "dago" and "dey" in the other direction: 35 points. She challenged, not the somewhat obscure "dey", but "dago" because she knew something I didn't: Sure enough, "dago" is not in the official Scrabble dictionary.
There must be some mistake, I thought. "Dago" is a word, it's not new slang, it has been around for a long time, it's not a proper noun. Turns out that in the 90s Scrabble removed a number of words that are offensive or considered offensive from its dictionary, including "dago". I'm not surprised there are some people (there always are) of a certain age who find such things scandalous. What shocked me was that offensive words were removed from a game the point of which was your knowledge of all the words in English.
Apparently, this is how it happened:
While reading [the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary 2nd. Ed.], Judith Grad found several words she considered to be offensive, including "jew", listed as a verb with the definition "To bargain with - an offensive term". Her initial letters to Merriam-Webster and Milton Bradley requesting removal of the words resulted in politely negative responses. Grad wrote to the National Council of Jewish Women, who began a letter-writing campaign in support of her cause. Publicity in Jewish media led to the Anti-Defamation League writing to Hasbro chairman Alan Hassenfeld, who announced that a third edition would be published with the "offensive" words removed.
How did I miss this cultural landmark? Well, most of my good friends are poor but well-educated. When playing Scrabble in the past, we would use whatever dictionary was handy, usually a well-worn unabridged single volume thing. All of the words are in there, even the naughty ones. But now with the magic of the internet, the official dictionary is online, so we were using it this time.
I wondered which forbidden words were on the list and which weren't. It turns out, there is a lot for me to learn when it comes to offending people. I didn't know a good percentage of these terms. I would have expected all of Carlin's Seven Dirty Words to be on there, but of course "tits" has a perfectly innocuous meaning, so that stays in. If "jew" is out, so are the other antisemitic slurs (kike, hebe, yid, sheenie - that one was new on me), as well as their counterparts (goy, shiksa). I also learned "shegetz", which makes my world so much culturally richer. "Popish" is on there, which conjures up images of 19th-Century Know-Nothing riots. And "jesuitic"? Really, that's an insult?
On race and national origin, we've mainly got you covered. So covered, in fact, that I now know a lot more racial slurs than I did before. Ofay and buckra sound like ingredients on a French bistro menu, but in fact they are both disparaging terms for white person. (I shit you not - of course, "shit" is also on the list, so I really shit you not when Scrabbling.) Nigger, wop, mick, tomming, whitie, darkie, gringo, dago, spic, jigaboo, redskin, honkey, squaw, wetback, of course. "Haole" I only knew because of reading about Hawaii when Obama started his campaign. "Abo" I knew they say in Australia, but I didn't think it was a slur. "Chink" didn't make it, understandably given it's commonly used in an inoffensive way, but where is "gook"? "Coloreds" but not colored is on the list, although the plural also refers to laundry. (Too slangy, I guess.) Did you know "hunkie" is a disparaging term for a person of Slavic or Hungarian descent? Now you do! I was appalled that "greaser" isn't on there, though; I guess they're thinking it's "a person or thing that greases" instead of a Mexican. I was also distressed to see that neither "towelhead" nor "raghead" made the list - perhaps they're too new. "Haji" is clearly too new in its insulting sense, but I look forward to seeing it on the list as it gets updated. But it turns out that "nitchie" is chiefly Canadian slang for a Native American person. Who knew? And I was pleased as a student of history that "pommy" was on the list - I am sure there are some elderly British immigrants who remember when it was last used in conversation. The list also includes "skimo", but I can't find any reference to it online or in any other dictionary - perhaps it's an insult from another planet?
I was a bit let down on sexual orientation insults. Fag and faggot aren't on the list, I guess because they have innocent meanings, but who ever uses them in those senses? "Faggotry" is on there, which makes my day. Dyke is not on the list, being an acceptable alternative form of the word meaning levee, but "dykey" is. Lesbo isn't on there, but "lez" and "lezzy" are. "Poofs" and "nancy" made it, which is sweet - I love anachronisms. And where are "homo" and "het"?
I was surprised to find cultural and political insults on the list, although I guess "redneck" and "fatso" were predictable if it had ever occurred to me to give this topic more than five seconds' thought. "Comsymp", though, th' fuck?
Other, more serious players reacted the way I did:
The news was generally not well received by members of the National Scrabble Association, which was not consulted in the decision. After receiving mostly negative feedback from players, including threats to boycott events, NSA president John D. Williams announced a compromise, the result of which was the publication of the unexpurgated Official Tournament and Club Word List.
This comprehensive list is such a well-guarded secret it retails for about $500. Used. For a game that involves knowing things, this doesn't seem like the optimal result.
A year ago, we saw a quiz thing that asked you to determine which of four odd phrases were euphemisms for sexual acts. By the time we had discovered this question, every item on the list had developed a carnal reputation. That is to say, every item. We are fast approaching a point where ordering a sandwich at a deli will land you in prison. While I'm intrigued by the dystopian undertones of this scenario, I don't necessarily want to live under its strictures, not least of which because I tend to frequent delis.
Also, I'm pretty sure that "Dystopian Undertones" is guttermouth for the male testes. Make a note.
Anyhoo, now that I have studied the list, this dago is ready to compete no matter which dictionary we use.
Also, ham doctor.