To Bee Or Not To Bee

Combing through the puzzling case of Malcolm’s latest online obsession

The New York Times has long been regarded as the gold standard of American journalism, which is why the paper has come to be known by so many different admiring nicknames, including “The Newspaper of Record,” “The Old Gray Lady,” and “The Sultan of Swat.”

Even so, being the nation’s most esteemed paper didn’t protect the Times from the threat of the Internet back in the late 1990s. As readers increasingly went online to get their news the Times, along with many other papers, responded to declining circulation numbers with the genius idea of… posting its content online for free. You know, just until this whole “Internet” fad wore off and consumers realized that paying for the privilege of reading a printed newspaper you pulled from a puddle in the front yard was far superior to reading news online for free.

When this hoped-for return to the good old days never materialized, the Times’ publishers decided they could no longer just give all their content away and launched a new paid subscription service called “Times Select.” This approach — give it away for free at first and then start charging later — is what economics textbooks call the “neighborhood drug dealer” business model. With Times Select the paper’s news reporting was still free to online readers, but they were forced to pay to read the opinion section featuring well-known columnists like Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd. Unfortunately for the Times, it turned out that Friedman, Dowd, et al were not nearly as popular as, say, crack cocaine, and the paper was forced to scrap the program after just two years.

The Times Hits on a Solution

More recently the Times has latched onto a new money-making strategy that’s relatively simple and doesn’t involve the added costs and associated hassles of, say, investigative journalism. That solution? Puzzles. Oh sure, for generations the Times has been known for its signature daily crossword puzzle, which is considered the top tier crossword puzzle among people who like to brag about how good they are at doing crossword puzzles. In ink. Not that you asked but, you know, in case you were wondering.

The money has been rolling in ever since the Times added a spate of new daily puzzles to the paper’s website, the most popular of which is the Spelling Bee. This puzzle features a “honeycomb” hexagon of six different letters surrounding a single central letter, and the challenge is to come up with as many common words of four letters or more using any combination of the letters on display, provided that the central letter is used at least once. In truth it’s not that much more complicated than the Jumble, yet people have gone nuts for this puzzle, me included.

Giving the “drug dealer” model another go, the site lets visitors solve a few words of the Spelling Bee before they hit a paywall and this popup appears on screen:

And that’s not the only insidious way they get you. Once you fork over the $40 annual subscription fee and start playing, the site offers up a congratulatory “nice!”, “terrific!” or “well done!” for each word you find, encouraging you on with a corresponding endorphin burst. Then as you rack up points, the game gooses you along with rankings ranging from “beginner” through “moving up,” “solid,” “amazing” and “genius,” culminating in “Queen Bee” for identifying all the possible words. 

The first time I ever achieved “genius” level I shouted to my wife in the next room, “Hey honey, guess what — the New York Times says I’m a genius!” Later I discovered that in 2020 more than 450,000 players reached Spelling Bee’s “genius” level, at which point I realized I could probably stop rehearsing what to say when I got that inevitable call from the MacArthur Foundation people. So it’s just as well she had her earbuds in and didn’t hear me.

I Do Not Like That Word, Sam I Am

As much as the Spelling Bee has provided a diversion for pandemic-weary souls, there are plenty of us who nevertheless quibble with the choices made by the puzzle’s editor, 25-year-old Sam Ezersky — specifically, the choices he makes about which words are deemed “common” and worthy of inclusion, and which aren’t. We crossword aficionados fume when the game rejects words we know well like “adit,” “amir” or “snee.” “What do you mean that’s not a word?” we shout at the Times app on our laptops or cell phones. “I just used it on your goddamned crossword puzzle!”

Commenters online get surprisingly worked up in their debates over what words should and shouldn’t be included. Why, for example, is “torii,” (the gateway into a Shinto shrine) acceptable but betel (the leaf of an Asian evergreen climbing plant) is not? The answer? Because Sam Ezersky says so, much to the frustration of his myriad critics. Personally, I take issue with the exclusion of “unnun.” I’d sincerely like to know what term Ezersky uses during the many times in a typical week when he needs to refer to “the process of removing an individual from the condition of being a nun.” And please don’t say “kicking the habit.”

The Birds and the Bee

My college roommate is also a Spelling Bee fanatic, as well as a biologist who studies birds. He and I have commiserated over the puzzle’s rejection of “caracara” and “motmot,” speculating that Ezersky has a bizarre aversion to bird names that feature repeated letter sequences. However, Ezersky has included “dodo” and “nene” in previous Spelling Bee puzzles, so who knows what his reasoning is.

Through my daily struggle with the Bee, my 18-year-old daughter and I have developed a number of running jokes about words the site accepts that we find questionable. One example is “cocci” (pronounced like “cock see”), which I assumed to be the plural of coccyx, the scientific term for the tailbone. She and I have speculated about just how frequently this “common” word comes up in conversation:

Her: “My friends were ice skating and they both fell pretty hard on the ice.”

Me: “Are they OK? Did either of them break their cocci?”

Sadly, it turns out that cocci is actually the plural of “coccus,” the term for a spherical bacterium. But I’m sure you already knew that. It is a “common” word, after all.

I guess if I had thought about it, I could have asked my college roommate the biologist about cocci. But frankly, I’m not sure I want to encourage his Spelling Bee habit. Of late he’s taken to posting on Facebook his own Spelling Bee-inspired seven-letter hexagon puzzles of movie titles, along with staged photos of himself mimicking familiar scenes from the films to help the rest of us guess. So in answer to the unasked question, yes, there is such a thing as taking one’s Spelling Bee obsession too far. 

So if you’ve been looking for an excuse during the pandemic to spend more time staring at a screen and another source of aggravation to add to your daily routine, the New York Times Spelling Bee might be right for you. Or, if you’d rather try something less addictive, there’s always crack.