Who Is The “Average Solver”?

In crossword forums, the comment sections of crossword blogs, and virtually any other online space where people share their thoughts on puzzles, you’re bound to see the same criticism over and over.

“The average solver wouldn’t know ____.”

I saw a comment on a r/crossword reddit forum recently, regarding the November 11 USA Today puzzle. 10-Down was clued “Spoons,” and the answer word was ENERGY. The poster was baffled.

(If you’re among those who didn’t get the reference, this clue references Spoon Theory, a concept common to those who suffer from chronic pain, fatigue or other debilitating conditions, regarding how many “spoons” a certain activity costs. It’s a way of quantifying how their condition affects their daily life.)

After it was explained, the poster asserted that “nobody” would make the connection between spoons and energy.

Now, no matter what you think of that clue — I personally would have gone with something like “Spoons, to some” or “Spoons, metaphorically” — it’s plainly false that NOBODY would make that connection.

Is it commonplace? Depends on how old you are and in what circles you travel, it seems. (Based on an informal poll I conducted, people 35 and younger are far more likely to know it.)

But one must never mistake their own unfamiliarity with a term for genuine obscurity. And I don’t say this out of judgment. It’s a mistake I’ve made myself on more than occasion. Heck, earlier this year, I did so when reviewing a tournament puzzle. I felt an entry (a hybrid fruit) was too obscure, only to discover others found it fairly common. Live and learn!

Another example where someone questioned the “average solver” was recently shared on Twitter. Constructor Malaika Handa shared part of a Crossword Fiend review:

She pointed out that this assumes that the “average solver” isn’t of Latino descent.

(It’s also worth noting that AREPAS is a more interesting entry than ARENAS, but I digress.)

What do you picture when you imagine the “average solver,” I wonder?

Because I think about those two nebulous measuring sticks a lot: “nobody” and “the average solver.” While they can be valuable to consider, they’re also very misleading.

I mean, what does the “average solver” know? European rivers? Football players? Greek letters? Classical composers or K-Pop bands? How many people would know ETUI if not for crosswords? It’s hardly commonplace.

Do they know those things AND solve crosswords, or do they know those things BECAUSE they solve crosswords? If constructors start regularly cluing or referring to spoons or arepas, then they become part of crossword vernacular, and then the “average solver” might be expected to know them.

Quite a slippery slope when you really start digging, isn’t it?

Plus, there’s more than one average solver, depending on how you look at it. Every outlet has a different “average” solver, and they’ll change over time.

Take PuzzleNation for example. Our Facebook audience is different from our Twitter audience, which is different from our blog audience. But there is overlap. We know there are Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search solvers among all of those groups. But that’s five different “average solvers” to consider at the minimum.

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That’s the challenge, isn’t it? Every crossword constructor walks a tightrope, trying to keep their puzzles fresh while still appealing to solvers.

And, as recently pointed out in a New York Times piece, the Internet has accelerated the proliferation of new slang and terminology. Words become part of the modern vernacular much faster now. (And every time The Oxford English Dictionary adds new words, we get a sense of how deeply some of these new terms have embedded themselves.)

Personally, I think crosswords are better when we’re learning from them. I’d rather have to look up a word or assemble it from familiar crossings — and broaden my own vocabulary and knowledge — than see the same old fill. Those European rivers. Those composers. Those Greek letters.

More spoons and arepas, please. If there is an ideal average solver out there, let’s teach them something new.


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