One of the biggest complaints levied at crosswords in general involves the vocabulary often employed to fill the grid.
Whether you call it crosswordese, obscure trivia, outdated vocabulary, or intentional gatekeeping through language, it’s a problem some solvers never overcome, contributing to a negative, exclusionary reputation for crosswords.
Let’s talk about the two extremes first. I genuinely believe that there’s no intentional gatekeeping in crosswords. There are ongoing efforts to include more women, more voices of color, and more LGBTQIA+ creators in construction, and even constructing equipment is becoming more affordable through efforts like Crossworthy Construct.
But not knowing common crossword parlance is a barrier to enjoying crosswords.
There is work to put in for new solvers to get up to speed in crosswords. Those common crossword words and names that we take for granted — ETUI, ALEE, OLIO, ARIA, ICER, and more — represent the combined breadth and history of grid construction in crosswords. Those are the words you learn as part of your process to become a better solver, building a personal lexicon of crosswordese.
So where is the line? When does something pass from “charmingly difficult crosswordese” to “off-putting irrelevancy”?
In essence, how obscure is too obscure? How long can an old clue/entry linger without feeling outdated or exclusionary to new solvers?
It’s a good question, one that’s not not so easy to answer.
How long do we refer to “vamp” THEDA BARA, when her heyday was farther and farther back with every passing day?
How long do we continue to reference the Aral Sea, considering that there practically is no Aral Sea anymore? It’s mostly the Aralkum Desert now.
When it becomes part of history, is it acceptable? After all, calling Tokyo “Edo” or referring to Iran as “Persia, once” happens all the time.
Obviously, outdated terminology or obscure words aren’t as big an issue in crosswords as genuinely exclusionary and offensive entries, but it’s still a topic worth discussing, because it prevents the community from growing.
New entries, fresh entries, entries that speak to other members of the population… they have incredible value. Seeing yourself and your culture, your heroes, your history, your slang represented in crosswords builds a bond between you and the art of puzzling itself.
I’m sure outdated references and obscurities will never truly go away. Some of those letter combinations are just too valuable to constructors.
But it will be interesting to see how crosswordese and those potentially gatekeeping words change and evolve as we press forward.
Maybe in 30 or 40 years, “crosswordese” as a whole will feel more inclusive. One can only hope.
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