Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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