What Crosswords (May) Tell Us About Language

Several friends of the blog linked me to a post in The New York Times about the ever-evolving use of language in crosswords.

Essentially, the authors analyzed the frequency of foreign word use in NYT crosswords, and then extrapolated what that means about our language and our cultural evolution and development over the course of the crossword century.

And the authors unearthed some interesting patterns when it comes to the use of foreign language entries and clues: they’ve gone down. “Foreign-language clues and answers peaked in the 1960s and now make up less than 4 percent.”

The authors point out that this contrasts with the growing globalization of communication and pop culture, perhaps making a statement about crosswords as a linguistic bulwark against dastardly foreign words — the wordy equivalent of keeping the metric system at bay with feet and miles and other Imperial units.

But to me, that simply reflects the ongoing refinement and evolution of puzzles away from obscurities — both foreign and domestic — in favor of better, more accessible crossings. To be honest, a lot of these foreign references qualify as crosswordese, because you’d rarely, if ever, encounter them in casual conversation, even in this increasingly globalized society.

I often joke that crosswords have improved my knowledge of African animals, European rivers, and Asian mountain ranges, none of which really affect my life in any other way. I can file them away with all the high school science I learned, like the definition of osmosis.

Some of their assertions did make me laugh, though. In their closing paragraph, they state:

But we are more likely to encounter Uma as an actress (117 answers since 1990), and not as a Hindu goddess (five answers, none since 1953).

[Pictured: a Hindu goddess enjoying a milkshake.]

And at no point do they mention that Uma as an actress would likely have been used — quite gratefully — by constructors in the ’40s and ’50s, had there been a prominent (or even remotely famous) Uma in films at the time. Heck, I’ve been begging for someone to discover the next megastar Una or Ona or Oona or Ana to help revitalize my cluing.

There will always be a drive to innovate new entries and keep up with the latest in popular culture. That’s part of what maintains the quality and interest in crosswords: they evolve with us.

Admittedly, it’s fun to imagine someone hundreds or thousands of years from now, trying to reconstruct our society and general knowledge based on crossword entries and cluing. They’d no doubt wonder why poetic terminology and female sheep were so important to us.


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