Though Tracey Bennett calls Ann Arbor home, her life took on a “We’re not in Kansas anymore” vibe on Nov. 7, 2022 — the day she was announced as The New York Times’ Wordle editor.
“I just thought it was going to be a normal day for me,” says Bennett, an associate puzzle editor who works remotely for the Times. “I was in my pajamas at 10 a.m. still when there was a knock on the door, and a Channel 4 news van was outside, and my heart just went ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.’”
This kind of media attention seemed to blow up as quickly as Wordle’s popularity did in 2021.
Bennett grew up loving jigsaw puzzles and word games. After winning a local crossword puzzle contest in 2010 and attending a national crossword players’ conference, she ventured into crossword construction, eventually getting her work published in the Times. In 2020, when the Times put out a call for an associate games editor, Bennett applied and landed her dream gig.
Josh Wardle, the game’s creator, has already programmed 2,700 words into the game, so Wordle is potentially stocked until 2027. So what is there to do? Bennett has been trying a few different approaches.
“Some people had published how to download [Wardle’s word] list in order,” Bennett says. “So it was information you could get. I don’t know what the joy would be in it, but you could get it on the first try every time if you’d downloaded that. … So the first thing I did was scramble the list. But it’s still his list. I haven’t added any words yet.” Bennett — who grew up in Maine and originally came to Ann Arbor to study English literature at the University of Michigan (’89) — also dabbled briefly in Wordle themes, setting up “drive” the day before Thanksgiving and “feast” on the holiday itself.
There was blowback, in part because these word choices seemed to emphasize American holiday traditions when the game’s scope is global. But this was the moment when the thick skin Bennett developed while working in management for 25 years (as an editor at Mathematical Reviews) kicked in.
“I just look at what’s being said and gut-check whether it’s valid,” Bennett says. “I mean, there was a Slate hit piece about it, where the title was ‘The New [Wordle] Editor Is Ruining Wordle.’ … If I was reading this and I was 25, I would have just been devastated. But the reality was, it was another grouse. It was just on a big platform.”
Even so, Bennett’s generally aiming for randomness instead of themes these days in regard to Wordle’s solutions. But she’s also opting out of obscure terms that most people would never guess (like “caput,” a Latin term for “head”) and invests time plumbing each word’s usage history.
“I care if a word is derogatory in a tertiary meaning, and if somebody … has heard that word hurled at them, then I know I don’t want to use that, even if it affects 2 percent of solvers,” Bennett says. “There was one like that. It was an old epithet toward Hungarians that I didn’t recognize. … So that was one case where … some people complained, and then I said, ‘I need to research every word, even if I think I know what it means.’”
Can she still play Wordle and enjoy the game she curates?
“If I work far enough ahead, I can, because I have no memory for what I set up two months ago, or it’s dim enough that I at least have to get three guesses before I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that must be it,’” Bennett says.
Currently, Bennett’s go-to first Wordle guess is “trace.” Of the Times’ suite of games, Spelling Bee is probably her favorite (“I don’t know if I should say this, but I like it a little more than Wordle to play,” Bennett says sheepishly), and she still constructs crosswords for the feminist magazine Bust, as well as for Crosswords with Friends and Groundcover News.
The biggest source of Wordle complaints is something that doesn’t particularly speak to Bennett personally.
“I would say 90 percent of the complaints are about broken streaks,” Bennett says. “I don’t try to maintain streaks on anything. I’m just lucky to get my laundry done.”
This story is part of the March 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.