Susie Dent: Amid much curfuggle, words – and games like Wordle – can help to bring people together

“Hell is a-popping”, to use a 19th-century US description of an unravelling and chaotic state of affairs.

Five letters, six attempts, and only one word per day: the formula for Wordle is simple (Picture: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
Five letters, six attempts, and only one word per day: the formula for Wordle is simple (Picture: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

We seem to have been hearing those pops for a long time now, and the doomscrollers amongst us have had to look for comfort in smaller things.

What then could bring more comfort than Wordle, the joyously simple word game that has captured our hearts as well as our brains. It comes as no surprise that this now-viral phenomenon, created by Josh Wardle for his partner during lockdown, has been snapped up by a commercial enterprise.

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The New York Times, already a pedigree player in the puzzle world, has bought the rights, and few of us would begrudge Wardle for handing it over. But what is the secret of his game’s staggering success, and what does it say about what we need at the moment?

As we look for distraction from our current mess, words – five-letter ones or otherwise – might just hold the key.

The joy of Wordle is surely its simplicity. Its rules are few and easily understood, allowing it to become a collective code-breaking exercise among friends, family, and indeed the whole world, for we are all set the same challenge every day.

Uniquely, too, we are rationed to just one game, requiring a level of patience that we’ve almost forgotten inside the endless loop of games and news feeds.

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Then there is the public aspect of the game, whereby every other tweet or Instagram post displays the tell-tale colours of a winning Wordle grid. Such community conversation seems highly prized right now, and it was demonstrated in a different way recently, when my Twitter buzzed to the tune of thousands of family sayings.

When words become our oasis, there can be huge solace in the expressions we grew up with, and that even now catapult us back to home and to childhood.

The Twitter conversation in question was set off by research suggesting that English expressions such as “spending a penny”, “mad as a hatter”, “knowing your onions”, and “dropping a clanger” have little resonance left for a lot of us given they date back centuries.

It prompted me to put out, just as I did during lockdown, a call for the family sayings that we haven’t forgotten, and that we wrap around us like a warm, baggy (and occasionally prickly) cardi as we remember them.

Take “she’s got more faces than the Albert clock” from Belfast, fondly remembered by the broadcaster Andrea Catherwood. Or Liverpool’s “standing around like one of Lewis’s” – an accusation of laziness and a nod to the mannequins in Lewis’s department store.

“It’s cold enough for an extra tie-pin!” was fondly remembered by Paul Crowder, giving us in the process a far politer version of “colder than a witch’s tit”. Another grandmother was mischievously commemorated through her remark “bless his heart – that baby is so ugly he would make a freight train take a dirt road”.

Thousands more poured in. Dare stand in front of the TV in St Helens and you might be told “oy, were you made at Pilks?”, a reference to the glass-makers Pilkingtons who have been long associated with the town. “Were you born in a barn?” seems to have been a standard rebuke to anyone who left the door open.

“Not now; I’m making a whim-wham for wowsers” (or “a goose’s bridle”, “waterwheels”, and dozens more riffs) was a favourite way of fobbing off a child demanding your attention.

“What’s for tea?”, meanwhile, was an invitation for a vast number of possible retorts, ranging from “shit with sugar on” to “pig’s arse and cabbage”, with stops at “vinegar on a fork”, “bread and duck under the table”, and “two jumps at the cupboard door” along the way.

As for asking a parent “where are you going?”, you might receive anything from “to Russia for snowballs” to “ashore for a loaf”. Playful insults inevitably abounded: “I’ve seen a bigger knot in a spider’s leg!” when looking at a child’s muscles, for example, or the curiously philosophical “she’s no better than she ought to be”.

The joy and fondness with which such sayings were recalled, and the dialogues that followed, suggest we are cherishing the conversations of home more than ever, for they give us a rare chance to recombobulate.

If the rest of life is a proper “curfuggle” (Scots for a total mess), we can at least carry on with our whim-whams while we Wordle.

As Toni Morrison once put it quite beautifully: “We speak, we write, we do language. That his how civilizations heal.” Add word-games to the mix, and we might just have a solution.

Susie Dent is a lexicographer and etymologist. She has appeared in Dictionary Corner on Countdown since 1992, and co-hosts the podcast Something Rhymes with Purple with Gyles Brandreth

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