Making Wordplay Magic with Word Squares!

[The Smyrna word square, uncovered as a bit of puzzly graffiti in 2016.]

Have you ever tried to make a word square, fellow puzzlers? It’s an intriguing twist on crossword-style construction, except the words you place read both across and down in the grid.

For instance, a five-letter word square could read:

WATER
AWARE
TALON
ERODE
RENEW

As you can see, 1-Across is also 1-Down, 2-Across is also 2-Down, and so on. (Appropriately enough, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles have a puzzle involving this puzzly trope, and they call it “Across and Down”)

Word Squares have been around for centuries. One of the most famous is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:

Not only is it a word square, but it’s a palindrome as well!

It’s a neat little linguistic challenge, and as you might expect, they become more difficult to construct the larger they get.

But physicist, computer programmer, and all-around word enthusiast Eric Tentarelli might’ve cracked the code to making word squares in heretofore impossible sizes…

Doing so in Latin.

In the introduction to his WordWays article “Large Word Squares in Latin,” Tentarelli explains:

Large word squares have been pursued in many languages, but large word squares in Latin appear to have remained unexplored, despite the form’s origins in ancient Rome and despite the benefits offered by Latin inflectional endings.

New word squares constructed in Latin are shown to surpass in size those created in other languages to date, most notably by attaining the holy grail of logology: the first known non-tautonymic ten-squares consisting entirely of solid, uncapitalized words in a single language.

So, what does he mean? Well, essentially, people have been able to pull off word squares of impressive size — 8×8, 9×9, and 10×10 — but not without using certain undesirable words and word variants.

Those variants would include hyphenated words, tautonyms (scientific names where the same words is used twice, like vulpes vulpes for “red fox”), and capitalized words, aka proper nouns. Also, some puzzlers have mixed languages in order to create these word squares, similar to crossword constructors getting themselves out of a tough corner by using a European river.

Ideally, you want a word square consisting of, as he says, solid uncapitalized words in a single language.

Like this:

tentarelli

Say hello to the first verified 11×11 word square in a single language.

“I produced these squares by selecting final rows that combined to produce common endings and therefore maximize the chance of completing the rest of the grid.”

By compiling lists from reliable, verifiable dictionary sources and building a database of potential words, Tentarelli gave himself a strong base to start with.

But by choosing Latin as the language of choice, he significantly increased his chances of success. Thanks to “its extensive and overwhelmingly regular system of inflectional endings,” Latin was an excellent choice for word squares, which are commonly constructed by placing the bottom words first and building upward from there.

From David Brooks’ article in The Concord Monitor about Tentarelli’s work:

English has some endings that finish up on many words, “-ING” being the most obvious example. but Latin has plenty more including some that extend to four and even five letters, which makes it easier to find word squares. “In Latin, if the words in the bottom rows combine to produce nothing but common inflectional endings, such as -NTUR or -ATIS, there is good reason to hope the remainder of the square may be filled,” he wrote.

tintorelli 2

[Four 10×10 word squares built from the same three final words.]

It’s honestly mind-blowing and so inspiring to see what puzzlers can achieve by combining their own linguistic insights with the processing power of computers.

Tentarelli has helped push an ancient style of puzzling to places it has never gone before, and he managed to do so in the original language. How cool is that?

And he’s not done. Apparently, he’s working on a 12×12 square now.

There’s no telling how much farther he could go in the future.


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It Was His Sister, In the Living Room, With the…

We’re one week into 2021, but if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to share one last bit of puzzle fun from 2020.

Every household has their holiday traditions. Maybe it’s who you see on Christmas Eve or who puts the star on the tree, who lights the first candle on the menorah or who says grace at the dinner table.

It’s no different when it comes to puzzly holiday traditions. One friend challenges his kids to a puzzle hunt Christmas morning before they open their gifts. Another couple I know gives each other games for Christmas, and then invites certain friends over that evening for a holiday game night. (Naturally, this year, they did so over Zoom.)

I recently stumbled across another puzzle/game-fueled holiday tradition and I wanted to share the story with my fellow PuzzleNationers.

One Christmas, six years ago, a young man received a candlestick from his sister as one of his gifts. It was in a black box with a purple ribbon. He was very confused. He didn’t understand this gift at all.

The next year, he received another strange gift: a spool of rope.

And so it went each year. Another Christmas, another strange gift.

He soon cottoned on to the pattern, though, and began to look forward to each year’s new offering.

This year, she completed the set for him:

Yes, every Christmas, his sister got him one of the weapons from Clue, a favorite movie from their childhood, inspired by the classic board game Clue/Cluedo. Pictured above are the gifts in order, from the candlestick first to the revolver last.

One can’t help but wonder what their parents thought when the pipe, the knife, or the revolver arrived. But hey, maybe they’re Clue enthusiasts as well.

A lot of people plan ahead for Christmas. But planning ahead for six years? Now that’s puzzly commitment.


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New to Crosswords? Solve Along With the Try Guys!

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As someone who has attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in the past, I can attest to how blisteringly fast some of the top solvers are.

And there’s a lot that goes into a top-ranked solving technique. There’s the regular experience of actually solving on paper in pencil (which is very different from solving on a screen), and years of familiarity with crossword tropes, building a well-established lexicon of common crossword words, letter patterns, and cluing styles to draw on.

There may be a natural gift or affinity for puzzle solving as well, or simply a knack for reading past clever wordplay and cracking tricky clues and elusive themes faster than most.

In any case, it’s a curious alchemy that makes a top-notch solver. But you don’t have to be top 3 in a tournament to be fast. I am routinely impressed by the average times posted by constructors and fellow puzzlers alike.

During the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, for instance, plenty of fellow solvers completed puzzles in less than half the time it took me.

So when I heard that YouTube’s famous experimental quartet The Try Guys were testing their puzzly mettle against a respected constructor, I happily watched along.

In the video, the team tried to group-solve a Monday New York Times crossword in the time it would take magician and crossword constructor David Kwong to solve FOUR New York Times puzzles.

I won’t spoil how things turned out — watch the video for that! — but I do want to discuss the role David played as puzzle ambassador in the video.

If you know someone who is intimidated by crosswords, or maybe wants to try solving them but hasn’t yet, I would highly recommend sending them a link to this video.

David does a terrific job introducing the Try Guys to the rules of crosswords, discussing everything from themed entries and rotational symmetry to some of the common crossword tropes we all know and love. (He even explains the famous November 5, 1996 quantum puzzle where either BOB DOLE ELECTED or CLINTON ELECTED could fit in the grid.)

He helps demystify the puzzle, but manages to do so in a way that still makes the challenge seem fun. The Try Guys go from being apprehensive about the race to being excited to bring their own unique trivia knowledge and skills to the table.

Not only does it encapsulate a lot of what’s fun and enjoyable about crosswords, but it serves as a small sampling of competitive solving, which might make fellow puzzlers more interested in participating in a tournament someday.

In short, it’s great fun AND great PR for crosswords. I don’t think it’ll make me any faster as a solver, but I enjoyed watching nonetheless. Nicely done, David. Nicely done, Try Guys.


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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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Eyes Open #12

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Welcome to the latest puzzle in my ongoing series, Eyes Open, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and other civil rights protests.

Over the course of the last year, we’ve discussed many important topics, delved into historic moments, and done our best to educate ourselves and our readers on crucial social issues.

For this crossword, though, I wanted to refocus on those groups on the front lines that inspired this puzzle series in the first place. There are a huge number of brave, selfless individuals out there organizing and advocating for people of color, for women’s rights, for non-binary gender representation, and for LGBTQIA+ causes. And these organizations, advocacy groups, and charitable foundations deserve a spotlight.

I will definitely return to this topic in the future to highlight groups for women’s rights and LGBTQIA+ causes, but for today’s crossword, I opted to focus on groups that work to better the lives of people of color. They are generous, bold, endlessly kind defenders of decency, civil liberties, and representation, and the work they do is immensely important.

Although the names or abbreviations of only eight organizations appear in this grid — we have posted links to each below the puzzle grid link — there are many more that merit attention. Please click this link to see a tremendous list of charities and organizations compiled by New York Magazine working on behalf of people of color.

As one year closes and a new year begins, we wanted to offer some well-deserved attention to hard-working groups and individuals who deserve our respect, our esteem, our support, and our heartfelt gratitude.

I hope this puzzle serves to both engage you as a solver and encourage you to learn more about these groups and the causes they serve.

[Click this link to download a PDF of this puzzle.]

Charity links:

If you have suggestions for more topics for me to cover in future puzzles, please let me know. If you’re a person of color and you’d like to share a puzzle of your own, or to collaborate with me on a puzzle, please let me know.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, and you have ideas, please let me know. If you’re a trans person, or a non-binary individual, and you feel underrepresented in puzzles, please let me know.

I would like this to become something bigger, but hopefully, this is at the very least a start.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for standing up, speaking up, and fighting the good fight.

Support LGBTQIA+ people.
Believe women.
Black lives matter.

Looking Forward to the Year in Puzzles and Games!

We spent this week looking back on the year that was 2020, celebrating the resilience, innovation, creativity, and kindness that makes the puzzle community so unique and remarkable.

But today, on the first day of 2021, it feels appropriate to turn our gazes forward instead of back, looking ahead for what’s to come.

And for our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, there are already exciting developments awaiting us all in the new year.


If you didn’t participate in either the Boswords crossword tournament or the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League last year, you might not have heard about this yet, but the intrepid puzzlers from Boswords are already launching their next solve-from-home puzzly endeavor…

The Winter Wondersolve.

On Sunday, January 31st, participants will have four puzzles awaiting them — three themed crosswords and a themeless — designed by top-notch constructors.

Registration opens tomorrow, so be sure to visit Boswords.org for all the details!

(And that’s not all! They’ve also announced a Spring Themeless League, a date for their traditional summer tournament, and the return of the Fall Themeless League later in the year! That’s loads of puzzly goodness to look forward to!)


acptlogo

Speaking of crosswords and tournaments…

After being forced to postpone and then cancel the 2020 edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament outright, Will Shortz and the tournament’s organizers announced the following a few days ago:

In most years, registration for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament opens on January 1. This year, though, we’re going to wait to see how the fight against the pandemic goes before deciding how to proceed.

Our hope is that, with widespread vaccinations, enough people will feel safe in attending an in-person crossword event in April to have it be worthwhile. We won’t know about that for some time.

Whatever happens, in-person or not, we’re planning at least a major online crossword event in April. We hope you’ll take part in some form.

Whether this means an in-person event — which seems optimistic — or a sequel to last year’s Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, we cannot say. But we will certainly keep you posted on any and all updates.


But it’s not just the world of puzzles that will be celebrating and finding new ways to bring fans together in 2021. The folks at Looney Labs will be marking their twenty-fifth year on the calendar in 2021. Yes, twenty-five years of Looney Labs and twenty-five years of Fluxx!

To mark the occasion, Looney Labs has a plethora of events and promotions planned throughout the year. There is a limited run of special anniversary cards and copies of a miniature version of Fluxx available with web store purchases, plus new game releases planned and much more!

The team at Looney Labs is also welcoming fans like never before with a series of one-of-a-kind Zoom experiences for game enthusiasts. You can purchase tickets for these Silver Jubilee events to play games virtually with the game designers and crew from Looney Labs! There are tutorials, full game sessions, previews of new games, and more planned for each one!

Tickets for the first Silver Jubilee event go on sale at their online store at noon Eastern on Tuesday, January 5th, and there will be more throughout the year!


The year is barely a day old and there’s already so much to look forward to!

We have also heard that some of our favorite constructors will be releasing new puzzle books in the coming weeks and months.

When you factor in all of the puzzles we can expect in major and independent outlets throughout the year — not to mention the puzzles we’ll be producing for our own apps like Daily POP Crosswords and Daily POP Word Search — 2021 is certainly looking bright for solvers of all ages!

And we look forward to sharing in all of that puzzle-fueled fun with you, PuzzleNationers. Happy puzzling!


Do you know of any puzzle or game events coming in 2021 that we missed? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

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You can also share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and explore the always-expanding library of PuzzleNation apps and games on our website!