The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

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Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


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Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


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Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


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So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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