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You Can’t Spell “Preventable” Without a Bee
Sometimes life (or a diabolical puzzle editor) throws you a curve you know is coming, and it still beans you in the brainpan. Bee alert!
The New York Times Spelling Bee is a daily online puzzle that presents a set of seven letters and challenges players to construct as many words as possible using them. There’s always at least one word — the “pangram” — that uses all seven letters. One letter is designated as the “center,” and that letter must appear in all the solutions.
I starting playing the Spelling Bee in the fall of 2018, and I quickly became fascinated with it. Before long I’d started building a little web tool to help me find solutions to the puzzle when I got stuck. All this was in service to my quest to achieve “Queen Bee” status — meaning that you have found every answer that the Times deems acceptable.
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Because that’s the other thing about the Bee — each day’s puzzle comes with a definitive list of acceptable answers. For some people, part of the fun and frustration of the Bee is arguing online about words that weren’t accepted in the puzzle but should have been, or that were accepted and shouldn’t have been. You’ll find endless examples of this exercise in the comments section of the Times Wordplay blog, or under the #spellingbee hashtag on Twitter.
Sometimes a word that the editors once deemed unacceptable, such as “annal,” will suddenly end up whitelisted after much lobbying from the Bee community. Sometimes other words, which may have been deemed too obscure or unintentionally offensive, will make the reverse migration to the blacklist.
Another thing the editors do with some frequency is to repeat a set of seven letters (or “hive”) after it has already appeared in the Bee. What keeps this from being too repetitive is that the designated center letter will be different. The pangram will be the same as before, but the differing center letter means there will still be some new words to find in the solution set.
Over time I kept tinkering with my solver, adding new features, automating others, and generally sprucing up the layout. Gradually other players found it, and it now attracts more users to my site than even my manuscript formatting guide. Enough people use it that I’m fanatical about correcting any problems as soon as humanly possible.
There was one problem in particular that I knew might crop up one day but had not yet — what would happen if the editors ever decided to repeat one specific puzzle, hive, center letter and all. I wasn’t sure my solver would know the right way to handle this situation. In the back of my mind I knew I needed to shore things up against that eventuality. But I knew it would also take time and hard effort, so I kept putting it off.
I shouldn’t have. Because early one morning in 2020, my nightmare scenario came true.
On that day of infamy, August 13, 2020, the Spelling Bee editors for the first time repeated a previous puzzle using the exact same center letter as before. Not only that, but they did it barely five weeks after the original version had appeared! The diabolical twist that really caused me such a headache was that the solution set for August 13 included just ONE EXTRA WORD that had been disallowed in the July 8 incarnation of the puzzle, increasing the number of acceptable answers from 26 answers to 27.
I woke up early that morning, as usual, intending to get an hour or two of writing done before work. Unfortunately, I had several messages waiting from folks letting me know that my solver’s solution set for the day was not getting them all the way to Queen Bee status. With dawning horror, I realized that, while I did have all the day’s correct solutions in my database, my solver, confused by the identical letter set, was offering players the solution from July 8 instead.
So, instead of working on my novel, I added a message of apology to the site and set to work. I got the problem fixed before I had to start work for the day, but it was a close thing. I was relieved that the problem would not recur in the future, but I still wished I’d gotten it done sooner, before it became a crisis.
The moral of the story is, when you see a problem coming, take care of it right away. Don’t wait for it to sting you between the eyes. The Boy Scouts were wrong about a lot of things, but they were right when they taught me, ahem, to “bee” prepared. ∅