Brief Thoughts on Word Games

I like to play a word game or two every day: to wake up, relax, or just see how well I can do. My favorites are Spelling Bee, Sedecordle, and Semantle; all of them are moderately challenging and don’t take very long. Of the three, Semantle is my favorite, though I have a few reservations about it.

First of all, why not crosswords? I enjoy them but rarely have patience or time for them, except for the mini variety. I’m not good at them; they typically involve lots of cultural references (to TV shows, for instance, or celebrity culture) that I don’t know. What I do enjoy about mini-crosswords, though, is that I can start off not knowing any of the answers, and then—without looking up any information or taking any hints—figure out one word, then another, then all of them. Out of seemingly nothing, an entire edifice takes shape.

Spelling Bee (pictured here) is fun because all you have to do is form words from the letters given. You may use a letter more than once, but each word must contain the center letter. Each word must have at least four letters. For instance, in this puzzle, “laud” would count, but “lucid” would not, since the “a” is missing. As you form valid words, you rise up the ranks until you hit “genius.” (There might be higher levels than that, but I usually stop there. It’s fun to be called a “genius,” no matter what the Growth Mindset police might say. Who knows: maybe I will win a “genius grant” at some point. I’m kidding; I bring it up because an eight-year-old satirical article about Mark Oppenheimer’s “genius grant” aspirations caught my eye the other day. And who knows: maybe there are MacArthur fellowship nominators watching for Spelling Bee geniuses! I’m not in the habit of announcing my wins online, though, so these triumphs probably go unnoticed.)

Sedecordle and Semantle are both spinoffs of Wordle. I got bored with Wordle quickly; it involves at least as much luck as skill, and it’s fairly easy to win. For Wordle, you have to guess a five-letter word in six tries. For each try, you are told (through colors) whether you guessed any of the letters, and whether you guessed both a correct letter and its correct place. I suppose winning in two or three tries is exciting, but again, that requires at least as much luck as skill. (Just now I won in four; according to the WordleBot’s analysis, I ranked 95 out of 99 points in terms of skill, and 57 out of 99 in terms of luck. So there you go.)

Sedecordle raises the bar a bit. You have 21 tries to guess 16 words. You’re guessing them all at once, so you can see how close you are with each. You can scroll up and down and choose which word to focus on. But even this game gets a bit easy after a while. A slightly more challenging variant is Sedecorder, where you must guess the words in order.

Now for Semantle. This is the most interesting, I think. You have to guess a word out of the blue–no set letter count, no set topic, nothing. If your word is far away from the secret word, the program responds with “cold.” If you get within a certain range, then you see “tepid.” And then, as soon as you come within 1,000 words’ proximity of the secret word, things start to heat up; the word is ranked exactly in terms of proximity, and you know that you are close.

But what does proximity mean? Words considered “close” to each other are the ones most commonly associated with each other (in a GoogleNews dataset). They might even have opposite meanings. So you have to think of words that might be found together. (Here’s an article on the technology used.)

The game is supposed to be maddenly difficult, but I have won 9 out the 11 games I played so far, without taking too long (I used a hint only once). I start out by guessing wildly different words until something comes close. Then I start homing in but not too narrowly; I still test a range of possibilities. Then when I get within the 1,000 range, I try to think of words that might be used in the same context as this “close” word. Then boom—I hit upon it.

The secret word is never obscure, nor is its relationship to the “close” words subtle. That leads to my main qualm with this game; in the early stage, when I’m just trying to hit on something vaguely close, I rapidly try far-flung words in succession, but once I’m close, if I want to win, I have to think like the program, which to me is not the most interesting way of thinking, not the way I thinkwhen writing a poem or story, for instance. How boring it would be to write stories where the words chosen are the ones most likely to appear together in a Google dataset. It’s a weird flattening of language.

But for a quick game it’s fun.

Many other games exist, but I’m content with this little set—again, I don’t want to spend much time on them.

One of my students wrote (in a short piece published last spring in Folyosó) that puzzles are pointless because someone has set up the solution in advance. You aren’t really discovering anything; you’re just hitting upon a predetermined solution that others are going to find too. I agree. But then, you could say that playing scales is pointless because everyone does it, you aren’t composing anything new with them. Or that going on a walk is pointless because someone has already laid out the paths for you. (I know, that’s stretching it.) I think of word puzzles and word games as light exercise, nothing grander than that. Also, delightfully and drearily, they have no real stakes. No one cares if you guess wrong.

Leave a comment


  1. Amy Halliday

     /  January 16, 2023

    Hi, Diana! The “weird flattening of language” is precisely my reaction to the text I see that’s been created by ChatGPT. There’s a lot of both hype and handwringing about this AI, and I see some reason for both. But what I’ve been thinking about recently is what machines can do best (in this case, predict what word or phrase should follow another, on the basis of the mind-bogglingly huge dataset the AI has been trained on—this is the source of the “flattening” effect) and what people do best, which is think up entirely new things, entirely new sequences of thoughts and ideas—and, thus, words.
    Anyway, I, too, enjoy word games. Semantle sounds…daunting!

    • Hi, Amy! I agree with you wholeheartedly. Even if ChatGPT learns to create new combinations of words, these combinations will lack thoughts and ideas. And yet the “writing” will seem polished.

      In many cases, offline writing has been following a similar pattern. Students are taught and encouraged not to say something interesting, but rather to satisfy a checklist of requirements (such as might appear on tests).

      I doubt ChatGPT will ever write anything lasting. But it will probably complete many a homework assignment.

      It is good to hear from you!


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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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