The Valuable Things (and Names and Places) We Learn From Crosswords

Problem-solving-crossword

I’ve learned a lot by solving crosswords. Honestly, it’s quite rare for me to solve a crossword and NOT learn something new. Sometimes, I am baffled by a reference I don’t know, and I end up finding out the answer only when the crossing entries are complete.

But that bafflement, that frustrating moment of ignorance, is soon mitigated, and I add a new fact to my ever-growing mental crossword library.

How many words have you learned by solving crosswords? How many geographic places do you know because of solving crosswords? How many actors, scientists, authors, musicians, and figures from pop culture do you know from solving crosswords? How many nuggets of trivia have you tucked away in the dusty parts of your brain that you picked up from an unexpectedly informative clue in a crossword?

Sure, we joke about the silent film stars and European rivers and African animals that often fall under the banner of crosswordese, but only because we’ve seen them enough to know them. We crave new entries, new peculiarities of language, and new crossword clue fodder to challenge and engage us in equal measure.

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A recent USA Today puzzle clued the word POEM with “Victoria Chang creation,” and a friend of the poet Victoria Chang, Nan Cohen, shouted out constructor Zhouqin Burnikel and editor Erik Agard on Facebook for including Chang in the puzzle.

Nan’s post went on to ask about how Chang ended up in the puzzle (though she thought it was cluing OBIT, Chang’s poetry book, instead of POEM, the actual answer):

I am curious, if you can share, how did you arrive at the cluing and decide it was accessible enough? (I love that it’s a new way of cluing OBIT, and of course that it represents an Asian American poet–cannot think when I have ever seen a contemporary Asian American poet in a puzzle, although Arthur SZE (who won the National Book Award in 2019) might be helpful to someone sometime).

The praise for both Burnikel and Agard is well-earned — Agard was quick to clarify that the clue was 100% Burnikel’s doing — but the discussion itself highlights an important issue in modern crosswords: the concept of who is “crossword-worthy.”

obit

Natan Last discussed this very topic in a brilliant piece in The Atlantic last year, citing the following troubling examples of “crossword-worthy” gatekeeping in major outlets:

Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

Appropriately enough, Last’s piece mentions a puzzle by constructor Sally Hoelscher, and Sally herself replied to the Facebook post celebrating Chang’s inclusion in the USA Today crossword:

One thing I enjoy about the USA Today puzzle is that Erik and the constructors are intentional about lifting up and highlighting those who may not be deemed “crossword-worthy” by some publications. I was delighted to learn about Victoria Chang from this puzzle, and to learn about her book, OBIT, when I was researching her to write my blog.

I can’t say for certain how many solvers were already familiar with Victoria Chang or her works, but I suspect the majority of USA Today crossword fans learned something new that day.

That is reason enough to keep pushing the boundaries of what is considered “crossword-worthy.” Inclusion encourages visibility, which encourages greater participation in crosswords, which feeds into greater inclusion. And along the way, solvers are exposed to worthwhile individuals and ideas, learning more about the world we live in.

Sounds like a win-win to me.


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