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North American Scrabble Players Association CEO John Chew, seen here at his Toronto home on June 23, 2020, says he found himself using vulgar words in the game that he would never say aloud.

Cole Burston/The Globe and Mail

When John Chew first walked into the Toronto Scrabble Club in the summer of 1993, a “mixed race person with kind of geeky interests,” he immediately knew he’d found his community. There were people from all backgrounds and circumstances, and all they wanted to do was play Scrabble.

He also accepted one of the fundamental tenets of competitive Scrabble play: The words on the board have no meaning.

And so it was that Mr. Chew, who never swears or uses vulgar words or slurs, found himself for decades employing such words in games and tournaments without so much as a second thought.

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“I’ve played them on the board because I was told that was okay,” says Mr. Chew, a Toronto resident who subsequently took over the Toronto Scrabble Club, and is now president of the North American Scrabble Players Association. “I never questioned why it was okay.”

But times are changing. And a lot of things that seemed okay – or that at least were not being actively, openly questioned – are no longer being given a pass.

While the debate over whether slurs, swearing and otherwise offensive words can and should be played in competitive Scrabble is not new, it has taken on fresh urgency amid the many discussions prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks.

When expert Scrabble player Cesar Del Solar raised the issue in a players’ forum, Mr. Chew says he, too, began to consider the question anew. Why were words that would be a hate crime if you spoke them aloud be acceptable on a Scrabble board?

“To say, ‘I have the right to use hate speech because I declare that it has no meaning’ – although a very popular opinion among Scrabble players – I don’t think is defensible on any sort of logical or ethical basis,” Mr. Chew says.

Mr. Chew first asked the advisory board of the Scrabble players’ association to consider the issue, and the question was then opened to further discussion among players and the public in a poll. Options listed for consideration are banning only “the N-word,” banning all slurs, banning all offensive words, or leaving things as they are.

In a detailed dispatch to the players association, Mr. Chew lays out the various arguments he’s received, including comparing removing words to tearing down Confederate statues (which he says has appeared as an argument both for and against).

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“To many people it’s a freedom issue, on both sides. People say they want freedom of expression, people say they want freedom from hatred,” Mr. Chew says. “People are shocked on both sides. I’ve had people on both sides literally in the exact words, say, ‘I can’t believe we’re even having this debate.’ ”

The full list of 238 offensive-but-currently-playable words is divided into categories, including anatomical, political, profane, prurient, scatological and slurs, and runs from the relatively benign “turd” to terrible slurs and a collection of colourful obscenities. Mr. Chew posted the list online with each word anagrammed alphabetically (the way competitive players memorize letter combinations) to avoid directly spelling them out.

Changes to the Scrabble lexicon can be tumultuous at the best of times. As Mr. Chew notes, competitive Scrabble players have “a very emotional bond to their vocabulary,” and feelings around playable words run high. Responses to the current debate have been heated, emotional and, sometimes, very personal. Mr. Chew says some people have told him he’s “ruined Scrabble by bringing politics into it.”

Several players did not respond to requests to speak about the issue, or declined to weigh publicly into the debate.

Siri Tillekeratne, the founder and director of the Calgary Scrabble Club, said in an e-mail that he worries that the debate could divide the Scrabble community, and even bring the end of competitive Scrabble.

Art Moore, a Black tournament Scrabble player and organizer of the annual North American Scrabble Championship, is among those who have spoken against dumping offensive words from play.

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“Words, whether you like them or not, are part of the language,” said Mr. Moore, who lives in Florida.

He said people have played racial slurs against him many times and that it doesn’t bother him, though he recalls one occasion where he refrained from playing a vulgar word against a woman, then lost because of it. (He said if he had to do it over, he’d play the word, and maybe apologize later.) He says he wonders whether the time and energy spent on this issue could be put toward more meaningful action against racial injustice.

“It’s a word in a game,” he says. “Inside the four corners of the board, that’s all it is.”

But, he adds, “If the community is all for removing the words, then that’s what we have to do.”

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