There's a five-letter word that describes Tracy Bennett's job: B-L-I-S-S.
In November, The New York Times — which acquired Wordle from creator Josh Wardle in early 2022 — announced Bennett as the first editor of the wildly popular game. Bennett, who joined the Times as an associate puzzle editor in 2020, now curates each day's answer from her home in Michigan, which she calls a dream job.
Bennett sat down with TODAY.com on Monday, Jan. 9, to talk about her process for editing Wordle, which tasks players with guessing a five-letter solution in six turns or fewer, and what it's like to send social media into a frenzy with her word choices.
How did people react when they found out you became the first Wordle editor?
Well, I think there was some nervousness in the community of Wordle solvers, that I would change things somehow, you know, that I would mess with things too much, but my family and friends were very proud of me. And I think a lot of people are proud of me.
What was your path to being Wordle editor?
When I was young, I really loved puzzles — jigsaw puzzles, word puzzles, word games. And then, as I grew up, I started to get into specifically crossword puzzles. So in my teens, I started to kind of obsessively solve the Sunday crossword puzzle in The New York Times. And then, like, fast forward many years, I’ve always solved the puzzle. But in my 40s, I got the bug to try to make puzzles, which is a whole different thing than solving. And that was about a decade ago, so I’ve been making crossword puzzles for about a decade. I still make puzzles for Bust magazine, which is a feminist magazine. And I edit puzzles for the Inkubator. And that is where I kind of started to learn how to edit, as opposed to just construct and write clues. I applied for a job at The New York Times when it became available, not expecting to get it, just thinking it was a real wild card because I lived in Michigan, not in New York. But we were in a pandemic and they were already kind of shifting to more remote work and were able to hire me and that’s been just like my dream job. And I already liked my job. I worked for 30 years in mathematical copy editing in Ann Arbor. And now, this is, like, even better.
What are you thinking about when you choose each word?
It’s more that I’m authorizing them. First of all, I usually use a random number generator, some kind of random process to pick the words. And then I research them, so I will look through dictionaries and Google, and I’ll try to find out if there are any, like, secondary meanings that are maybe either profane or derogatory. And I wouldn’t want to run a word like that. I also run through letters, so if you have a word that has very common letters, and you have four letters in place — like, for example, blank-o-u-n-d. That fifth letter — found, mound, round, sound — there’s like eight of them, I think. There are only six guesses so even if you have already figured out four correct letters, you still have more letters to guess than there are. So, that’s based on luck, rather than deduction.
Last May, the word "fetus" was dropped because it was too close to the news. Have there been words nixed for being too topical or not appropriate for other reasons?
That’s the only one I can think of that was news-related. That was before I became editor, so it was a team decision. But that’s one of the things I do as an editor, is I look at the week coming up. And I just kind of check the news cycle to see if there’s anything that would make one of those words feel more hurtful or insensitive than normal.
Thanksgiving’s word was “feast,” and people had thoughts. Were you surprised by the reaction?
The thing that was persuasive in the arguments were those that were made by people who approached me with respect and told me their opinions. Like, I don’t feel like I was bullied by subreddit threads that were angry. But at the same time, you know, that’s an example of the passion that people have.
Do you plan to do more themed words?
It hasn’t been decided; even that would be a team decision. I don’t work in a vacuum without people behind me and under me supporting my progress. So I don’t see it as off the table, but I think it would look really different. I think it would still need to be random. A themed answer would still need to feel random, be unexpected, surprising, and possibly rare. One exception I can think of is if we did have guest editors, I probably wouldn’t edit their editing, except for things like derogatory meanings or something that’s already run. I probably wouldn’t allow that.
What kinds of words prompt the most complaints from fans?
Actually, we get more complaints about broken streaks than anything else. People don’t like when a word feels unfair in that way that you have four letters in place, and there are still a lot of letters that could complete that word. So we get that. And we do get complaints about secondary meanings. That’s something that I focus on as an editor. I hope I don’t miss anything, but editing is fallible just like everything else. And obscurity. So, a word that is not familiar to people, like “parer.”
What do you think has been the most difficult word so far?
“Parer,” at least in my memory. “Rupee.” A word that is regional, like for example a really American word. I got complaints about “condo,” for example, based on it being kind of an American concept. Regional or foreign language words. We did remove a Latin word from the list.
What was your strategy as a player, before you became editor?
I was whimsical. I did something different every day. For a while before I was editor, when I played the game, I started with "trace."
There are popular starter words that get brought up a lot: “adieu,” “rates,” “roast.” How do you feel about those?
I don’t think any word is a bad choice. I think it’s a personal choice. It’s what brings you joy. I think it is a good strategy to figure out which vowels are in the word early on. I don’t do it that way, but I think that is a really effective strategy.
Are there any public figures you’ve been surprised to see are Wordle fans?
I think it’s really cool that everybody’s into it. Lots of famous people do it. I really like that Questlove said he would like to pick the words. So, if I ever do guest-editing, he’d be one of the first people I’d approach.
Do you do any of the Wordle offshoots for fun?
I have in the past. I haven’t had time these days, but I used to do Semantle and Worldle. And I tried Redactle once and Heardle once.
What do you think it is about Wordle that has people hooked?
It is a global phenomenon. It’s attracted a global audience and it’s a way during the pandemic and beyond for people to find a way to connect with their family and friends on a daily basis. It has had a uniting effect. It’s a simple game. It’s not as intimidating as a crossword, but it is for language lovers. It’s for people who love vocabulary. It can be done in five minutes. And it’s sharable without spoiling, so there are lots of good things about it.
What does your favorite New York Times game say about you, if you had to compare Wordle fans to Crossword and Spelling Bee fans?
I think you’re really social if Wordle is your favorite game. You like connection. You like feeling like you’re a part of something big that’s going on. You like to make those daily connections with your family and friends. I think if you’re a Spelling Bee fan, you’re more of a solitary worker. You like the challenge. It’s a little bit harder, but it’s not as hard as the crossword. If you’re into the crossword, you’re probably someone who has got a lot of stamina for challenge and likes to keep adding more challenge. Wordle is the same kind of challenge every day. It does vary in difficulty, but it’s going to be within a certain range of difficulty. Crossword puzzles, you can start easy but you can get really hard. It’s more of the veteran committed.