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creative:impact - What’s in every five-letter Wordle? T-R-A-C-Y!

Tatsuo Yamashita

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Tracy Bennett
Earl Wilson
Tracy Bennett

Tracy Bennett is an Associate Puzzle Editor and Wordle editor for the New York Times. She is also Editor-in-Chief for Inkubator, a publisher of puzzles by women and nonbinary creators. Before changing careers in 2020, Tracy spent decades as a managing copy editor at Mathematical Reviews/MathSciNet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she still resides.

Tracy’s crosswords appear as a feature called “X-Games” in BUST magazine, and she’s on the constructing team making puzzles for the Crosswords With Friends app. She has had puzzles published by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Fireball, Queer Qrosswords, and Women of Letters. She constructed for the2017 Indie 500 and donates puzzles to Groundcover News, a 501(c)(3) organization taking action to end homelessness and poverty.



The New York Times: "Wordle Finally Has an Editor"

MLive: "Meet the Ann Arbor Woman Curating Wordle"


Deb Polich: Welcome to creativ:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Thanks for tuning in to hear our conversations about the impact and reach of Washtenaw County arts and creative industries, and the artists and creatives who choose to live here and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. What's the first thing you do every morning? Me. I pick up my phone, and I log in to the New York Times to do the Wordle puzzle. Apparently, I'm not alone. Since its debut about two years ago, it's estimated that about 3 million people across the world play the game regularly. You may have heard that Ann Arbor has a direct tie to Wordle in Tracy Bennett, who became the Wordle editor in November. She happens to live here, and she's a regular WEMU listener and donor. Tracy, I'm excited to welcome you to creative:impact.

Tracy Bennett: Hi Deb.

Wordle Announcement
The New York Times
Wordle Announcement

Deb Polich: So, you know, I'm so thrilled you're here, and I'm sure most of the WEMU listeners are too, because we're kind of known to enjoy puzzles. But for those who might not be familiar with Wordle, what's the game?

Tracy Bennett: Okay. So, the game is you get six guesses to guess a five-letter word, and each time you guess a word, you're told whether there's a right letter in the right place or the right letter in the wrong place. So, it kind of works like Mastermind for anyone who knows that game.

Deb Polich: So, The New York Times has a number of puzzles, both crossword puzzles and word games and others, and I was aware that Will Shortz, an NPR favorite, is the editor. But I never realized that his media company, The Times, has a puzzle department and staff.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: When did you join the team. And what's it like working together?

Tracy Bennett: Oh, it's a thrill. I joined the team in 2020. During the pandemic, I was hired as an associate puzzle editor. I was hired with another woman named Wyna Liu. So, they hired two new editors at that time.

Deb Polich: How many--

Tracy Bennett: They basically doubled their team.

Deb Polich: Oh, okay. So, there's four.

Tracy Bennett: Well, there's five.

Deb Polich: Oh five. Okay.

Tracy Bennett: And then we just hired another. So, there's six now.

Deb Polich: Okay, great. And what did you do before The Times?

Tracy Bennett: Before the Times, I worked for 30 years at Mathematical Reviews here in Ann Arbor, which is also called Math SciNet.

Deb Polich: And was that a publication?

Tracy Bennett: It's a database of higher-level peer reviews of mathematics.

Deb Polich: And are you a mathematician yourself?

Tracy Bennett: I am not. I was an English major. I majored in English literature here at the University of Michigan. But I was hired to be a copy editor and then later became manager of the copy editing department.

Deb Polich: So, you're a wordsmith. Words are your thing.

Tracy Bennett: I am a word person.

Deb Polich: Got it.

Tracy Bennett: Through and through.

Deb Polich: So, you mentioned that the goal of Wordle is to find a five-letter word in six times. There are some rules, right? No names, no locations, and a few others. So, do you now think in five-letter words?

Tracy Bennett: I do. Yes.

Deb Polich: And how do you make your choices?

Tracy Bennett: Well, I have a random method. It took me a while to get to it, but I use a number generator. I use a different method every week to kind of randomize the words. But I'm still using the list of words that Josh Wardle and his partner Palak Shah created. Those are set to go until 2027.

Deb Polich: Oh my gosh! That's quite a ways out.

Tracy Bennett: But I am reordering them from the order that they have.

Deb Polich: Because I was going to ask you, like, how far in advance do you prepare?

Tracy Bennett: I prepare six weeks in advance pretty much. I have some flexibility there. I can skip a week and then double up the next week. But I'm trying to work about six weeks ahead.

Deb Polich: Wow! So, you know, I play every day, as I mentioned, with an international group. There's three family members from England and three here in the States. We have issues with the common language we all call English.

Tracy Bennett: Right.

Deb Polich: So, take the word prise. P-R-I-S-E. I have never used that word in my life, and spellcheck doesn't recognize it when I type it.

Tracy Bennett: Well, I believe it's British.

Deb Polich: Exactly. Yes. So, the Americans are like, "Is that a word?" And our English mates are like, "Of course it is. It means to open something with force."

Tracy Bennett: Yes, it's kind of obscure, too. It's not something that we use every day. We don't often use that word in regular speech. So, yeah, it's a little bit odd.

Deb Polich: But Americans do, in fact, do use the word prise P-R-I-E-S, which is a root. The root is pride: to mean the same thing, which is to open up with force. So, we were having that international debate. It was pretty interesting.

Tracy Bennett: Well, it goes the other way, too. I've gotten complaints that we have American words that are kind of--

Deb Polich: Obscure.

Tracy Bennett: More used overseas.

Deb Polich: Right. 89 one WEMU's creative: impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Ann Arbor's Tracie Bennett, the editor of Wordle, the popular New York Times word puzzle. So, getting back to the American/English debate, what kind of complaints or compliments do you get about this about Wordle?

Tracy Bennett: Oh, well, I get a lot of positive feedback about how it connects people. And, you know, it becomes a way to connect with people on a daily basis. But, sometimes, the word choices are not popular because they break a streak, you know, because they're too hard, and it takes too many guesses to get the word, or there is, like, you know, some kind of American versus British English confusion. Yeah. Or that is obscure and difficult.

Deb Polich: Well, it's fun playing with the group because they kind of learn some of those things.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: Did you play it before it was picked up by the Times?

Tracy Bennett: Oh, yes, absolutely. I love games. Word games of all kinds. Yeah.

Tracy Bennett: So, when we set up our interview, you were a good sport and indulged me in solving a five-letter word challenge that I posed to you. That was brave.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: I'm curious about how you go about solving the puzzles yourself. So, it was five letters, and your first answer was S-T-A-L-E or stale.

Tracy Bennett: Right.

Deb Polich: So, why that word?

Tracy Bennett: Well, I kind of go on the Wheel of Fortune theory that it's good to get common letters into the first two guesses and especially to get a lot of vowels. So, I started with stale because I wanted to get that LSTAEL, and it also could have used slate.

Tracy Bennett: Okay. Okay. Any variation on the theme there. And then I replied that one letter was right. The A was right, but it was the wrong location.

Tracy Bennett: Yes. So, when I guessed axiom, which actually was whimsical because X is not a common letter, but I liked the word, so I sometimes just use whimsy. And it did get the I and O.

Tracy Bennett: So, those of us that do in fact just whimsically choose a word or sometimes want to see if a word is real, but we still want to make it within six letters, You kind of do the same thing.

Tracy Bennett: Yup.

Deb Polich: Or six tries, I should say.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: So then you had the A, the I, and the O, but they were all in the wrong location. Your next guess was....

Tracy Bennett: Well, my next guest was radio!

Deb Polich: And I said bingo!

Tracy Bennett: Yeah, I kind of thought maybe it's thematic because I might have also guessed audio, which would have gotten to you if it wasn't radio.

Deb Polich: Right, right, right. And so, you know, I did radio, of course, because it was thematic, and I did it for station manager Molly, who plays this game every day and then, of course, for the rest of the WEMU radio team.

Tracy Bennett: Yes, I love your team. I love Molly. Tell her hi.

Deb Polich: I will. I will. And, by the way, I gave the same word to my international Wordle pod. They played as a team. And each building on each other's response, it took them five tries.

Tracy Bennett: Oh.

Deb Polich: So, that was kind of a fun way to do it.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: So, Wordle isn't your only game--the only game that you that you publish. What other publications or puzzles do you do?

Tracy Bennett: Well, I make puzzles for Boston Magazine and I edit for the Inkubator, which is a puzzle service of puzzles made by women and nonbinary creators. But, at the Times, I am associate puzzle editor and work on crossword puzzles most of the time.

Deb Polich: Oh, okay. And those other two publications that you mentioned. Are those similar word games or what are they like?

Tracy Bennett: They're crossword puzzles.

Deb Polich: Oh, okay.

Tracy Bennett: That's really my first love is crossword puzzles. Wordle is my second love.

Deb Polich: And when did when did you start doing crossword puzzles?

Tracy Bennett: Well, I started solving them in my teens pretty seriously and started making them about a decade ago and started editing about five years ago.

Deb Polich: And do you do them in ink?

New York Times Super Mega Crossword Puzzle
Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue
New York Times Super Mega Crossword Puzzle

Tracy Bennett: Well, I solve in ink. Most people saw it online now. But I still print them out if I can.

Deb Polich: That's awesome. I never used ink. I always have to erase. So, we're going to be signing off here pretty quickly. And I just wanted to to kind of check in and see what's tomorrow's puzzle? I'm not going to tell anybody. Can you give me a hint?

Tracy Bennett: I can't. I don't even remember myself because I set them up so far ahead.

Deb Polich: And so far ahead. So, like, because you forget? Do you go back and play?

Tracy Bennett: I do get to play. In fact, yesterday, I got it in four guesses, which is about par.

Deb Polich: So, four is about usual for you.

Tracy Bennett: Yes.

Deb Polich: Oh I feel so much better because that's often what I do too.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: You know, I go between three and four.

Tracy Bennett: Yeah.

Deb Polich: So, it's a lot of fun. And, you know, I like it when you trip me up, but not always. So I'm glad you're having so much fun with this.

Tracy Bennett: I am.

Deb Polich: And it's so great to have you in the community and being part of this.

Tracy Bennett: Thank you. It's a privilege to do what I love every day.

Deb Polich: Well, thanks so much for joining us on the R-A-D-I-O on WEMU.

Tracy Bennett: Thank you.

Deb Polich: That's Ann Arborite Tracy Bennett, We've been listening to a conversation with her about the Wordle, which she edits for The New York Times. Find out more about Tracy and Wordle at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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