I Still Can’t Believe This Worked

Happy birthday, Mom!

My mother is quite the puzzle whiz, and we sometimes do the same puzzles. I introduced her to Wordle, and she pointed me toward another New York Times puzzle, “Spelling Bee”. Now, we play them both each day, and often discuss them. Recently, this led to some amazing fun.

A fair amount of background is in order, but I promise it will be worth it. Even if you’re not a New York Times subscriber, you can sample Spelling Bee at the link above, but I’ll lay it out quickly. The game presents a grid of seven letters, and your task is to make as many 4+ letter words as possible, always including that highlighted central letter:

A honeycomb containg the letters W, A, N, B, E, J, and then O highlighted in the middle
The puzzle for December 7, 2022

For instance, this past Wednesday, you might have entered BANJO, or OBOE, or any other musical instrument containing an “O” that you could spell using the provided letters. You could also spell words that aren’t instruments at all, that’s allowed too. You certainly can’t play “Stairway to Heaven” on NONE, but you could enter it here. How did we even get on musical instruments?! BABOON, that’s a word that would totally count. So would BONOBO, but the words don’t have to be primates either, OK?

Spelling Bee offers several goals in the course of play. Each puzzle contains one or more pangrams, words which use all 7 letters at least once. In the above puzzle, JAWBONE was a pangram (more specifically, it was a “perfect pangram”, because it didn’t use any letter more than once). In addition to pangrams, there are also various point totals to shoot for, culminating in “Genius” level. Finally, one can become a “Queen Bee” by getting all the words on the word list for the day. While I don’t often manage this, my mother attains it frequently.

Beyond the standard gameplay, my mother and I also particularly enjoy an unofficial side quest: finding words that are absent from the day’s word list. For instance, back on November 28, the game failed to accept the word EXIGENCE:

The word “EXIGENCE” being rejected for not being in the word list.
The word dates back to the 15th century!

The word list for each day doesn’t actually consist of all possible words. Instead, editor Sam Ezersky intentionally narrows things down by eliminating obscure words, thus making Queen Bee status a bit more achievable. While we know this, my mom and I still enjoy the chance to grouse to one another about how ridiculous any oversight is. “A kindergarten baby ought to know that word.” Any crossword solver worth their salt has seen this word:

The word “EELING” being rejected for not being in the word list.
eeling (noun): the activity or business of catching eels (Yes, really.)

That should bring you up to speed on Spelling Bee. Now, let’s look at this past Tuesday’s puzzle. That puzzle included the letters D, L, E, P, O, C, and the must-use letter U. After working on it for some time, I sent my mother the following image, along with a message noting my incredulity that this word wasn’t included in the day’s list:

The word “UPDOC” being rejected for not being in the word list.

Please enjoy our ensuing conversation:

Paul says: How does it not have “Updoc”?!; Mom says: What is Updoc?; Paul says Not much, what’s up with you?

I wasn’t sure this would actually work, and I was absolutely tickled pink when it did.1 My mother was greatly amused as well.

Here’s to another trip around the sun, Mom. Many happy returns!


  1. Hat tips for this joke are certainly due to Bugs Bunny, The Office, and most especially Scrubs. Zach Braff’s delivery of “It’s happening” slays me.2 ↩︎

  2. In the event that the linked Scrubs video has been, well, scrubbed from YouTube, I’ve archived it here. ↩︎