Scrabulous and four-letter words

March 18, 2008: 2:03 PM ET

By Josh Quittner

I was playing Scrabble at Scrabulous the other day and noticed that my opponent laid down a four-letter word that happens to be a racial slur.

My friend is a very PC kind of guy; I didn't think he was trying to insult me. I figured that, since we both routinely cheat online, the "Scrabble helper" program my buddy used must not have known that the word was offensive and simply picked it for another, legitimate meaning. Curious, I clicked on the site's in-line dictionary to see what it meant, and found that there was no legitimate meaning. So I started looking up other racial and sexual slurs. Every one I could think of was in there and allowed.

Clearly, I had too much time on my hands. So I started typing in four-letter swear words, just for the sake of science. Every one was allowed, including the seven banned by the FCC.

I should say here that I am no prude and am a free speech absolutist. Even my children talk like truck drivers. I was mainly curious because, if these words were allowed in Scrabble, I probably know more of them than most of my opponents. All these years I was ignoring them on the false assumption that they'd never stand up to a challenge. I felt like such a fool.

Being thorough-ish, I went to Hasbro's online Scrabble dictionary, and looked up the words. Sure enough, not a one was allowed! Had Scrabulous had been hacked by a foul-mouthed, racist, sexist prankster?

Nope. Apparently, until four years ago, those words were indeed allowed. But after an uproar at a national tournament, the National Scrabble Association expunged 170 words that were deemed offensive.

I guess the Scrabulous dudes never got the memo. The Agarwallas, two brothers living in India, had put up the unauthorized site two years ago and now have more than 700,000 users. They've been making over $25,000 a month and are still trying to work out some kind of deal with Hasbro and Mattel, who are asserting that their companies own the licensing rights to the game. The Agarwallas, meanwhile, are reportedly holding out for more money. Maybe if they get it, they'll be able to afford the new dictionary.

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