A 12-letter word for puzzly frustration…

Today, we’re tackling one of the most controversial aspects of the crossword world, my friends.

Oh yes, let’s talk about crosswordese.

For the uninitiated, crosswordese consists of words that appear frequently in puzzles, but not nearly as often in conversation or common use. (My favorite variation on that definition: “words that crop up a lot but are otherwise pretty useless.”)

For me, one of the worst offenders is ELHI, the abbreviated adjective covering school K through 12. I have never encountered this word in the wild, and in fact, I only became aware of it after I started working with puzzles professionally.

Many of the dedicated puzzlesmiths I know try their hardest to avoid crosswordese at all costs, but unfortunately, so long as American-style crosswords dominate the landscape, crosswordese will be with us in some form or another.

But it did make me wonder: what are the most egregious, the most annoying, the truly infamous examples of crosswordese among my fellow puzzlers?

And when I reached out to some of my friends in the puzzle community, they enthusiastically responded.

New York Times Crossword contributor Ian Livengood (check out our 5 Questions Interview with him!) immediately fired back a litany of crosswordese he’d love to see stricken from puzzle grids, including ALAI (as in Jai alai), ULEE, YSER, ESME, ESNE, ERATO, ETO, SST, ASE, ISERE, and AARE.

The folks at Penny Press — whom you might remember from my previous posts about terrific puzzle-cluing — provided NUMEROUS examples of their least favorite bites of crosswordese.

ALAI made another appearance on Executive Editor Amy Roth’s list, among such suggestions as EKE, ETUI, and ELA, wherein she posed the pointed question “Who IS Guido, anyway?”

ETUI popped up on variety editor Keith Yarbrough’s list of objectionable entries, alongside ANOA, ANA, OLIO, and KEA.

Crossword guru Eileen Saunders offered INEE (an arrow poison), NENE (the infamous Maui goose), ATLI, SELD (as in “Not oft”, ick), and perhaps my least favorite crossword entry of all time, IRED.

Variety editor Cathy Quinn had one particular example in mind when she replied: “Anile. It just has no positive connotations at all.” [Random House defines ANILE as “of or like a foolish, doddering old woman.” An adjective sure to get you slapped in certain company.]

For an example of the level of enmity some crosswordese evokes, look no further than variety editor Andrew Haynes’ outstanding reply, which I proudly present in full:


I despise that entry. I know that it has appeared in a poem or two, but be for real…

The door was ope
I saw the pope
He had some soap
It was on a rope

Pure drivel.

And for a marvelous glimpse into the exasperation crosswordese can elicit, I leave you with variety editor Paula Curry’s lyrical response, which makes for a wonderful mini-puzzle in itself:

What duel tool is full of E’s?
What Melville tale is in the South Seas?
What ubiquitous word is a building wing,
Or that wide-spouted pitcher thing?
Whenever I see such crosswordese…
I just get ired!

Thanks for visiting the PuzzleNation blog today! Don’t forget about our PuzzleNation Community Contest, running all this week! You can like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, check out our Classic Word Search iBook (three volumes to choose from!), play our games at PuzzleNation.com, or contact us here at the blog!

Where brilliance meets joyous frivolity…

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 29th birthday of Tetris in a blog post, and I referenced the famous MIT prank where a giant game of Tetris was played on the side of a building.

This prank is one of the most recent in a long line of “hacks”, and MIT students have performed some impressive feats of creative whimsy along the way.

From a fire hose drinking fountain in 1991 to the installation of a shower stall in a common area in 1996, from turning the dome into R2-D2 (as pictured in our opening picture) to the “discovery” of an elevator in the remains of the demolished Building 20 (purportedly leading to a secret subbasement), these are top-tier pranks executed by some of the cleverest students in the world.

The Great Dome is often the palette of choice for MIT hacks, having featured a Triforce from the Legend of Zelda video games, the TARDIS from Doctor Who (which appeared all around campus), a fire truck, the Batman symbol, and numerous other Hack endeavors.

Here, the Apollo lunar lander looks down on a statue of Athena also added by industrious students. (Apollo watching over Athena, how apropos.)

One year, board games invaded campus. Giant versions of Cranium, Mousetrap, and Settlers of Catan appeared around campus, and all of the helpful maps around campus were altered to feature Risk gameplay.

Another time, an enormous game of Scrabble appeared on the wall, complete with MIT-inspired words fluttering in the breeze.

To honor the posting of XKCD’s 1000th comic — a comic that has also made appearances on this blog — XKCD comics appeared all over campus, often spelling out “1000”.

A Newton’s Cradle with imagery inspired by the Portal video game series appeared in 2012

But the best part of MIT hacks? Wondering just how the heck they managed to pull it off without anyone seeing. Like the urban legends behind stories of cars disassembled and reassembled in a professor’s office, the technological wizardry and sneaky cunning required for these marvelous pranks makes MIT Hack enthusiasts fellow puzzlers in spirit AND practice.

Puzzles in Pop Culture: Parks and Recreation

In a previous installment of Puzzles in Pop Culture, Amanda of amandalovesmovies suggested checking out a puzzle-centric episode of Parks and Recreation. Well, Amanda, your wish is our command, and by wish, I mean suggestion, and by command, I mean I finally got around to tracking down the episode in question.

Today we’ll be exploring puzzly goodness of the Season 4 episode entitled “Operation Ann.”

It’s Valentine’s Day in Pawnee, and town employee Leslie Knope has gone all out, as per usual. Not only has she organized a Valentine’s Day dance in the hopes of finding someone for her best friend Ann, but she’s cobbled together an elaborate scavenger hunt for her boyfriend Ben. (The final clue will tell him where to meet her that night.)

His first clue is a cryptex, a locked cylinder popularized by The Da Vinci Code, and the five-letter code that opens it is a word that represents their third date. Ben is totally stumped, and turns to affable dolt Andy and mustachioed he-man Ron for help. Ron smashes the cryptex open with a hammer.

Inside is a rhyming clue pointing toward several murals throughout City Hall. Ron instantly deduces that the next puzzle is an acrostic, requiring the first letter of each marked mural. The three men split up and gather the necessary letters, which Ron then solves with impressive anagramming skills.

It’s worth noting that throughout this adventure, Ron repeatedly states how much he hates riddles, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Ben is now totally reliant on Ron’s help, and as it turns out, their next clue leads directly to Ron. (Leslie has managed to hide a clue on the bottom of Ron’s shoe.)

They discover there are TWENTY-TWO more clues to go. Ron again states that he hates riddles. They decide to split up, as Ben heads for the snow globe museum, Ron to a local bar, and Andy sticks around City Hall.

Their hunt continues in the following video clip:

As Ben begins to despair that he’ll disappoint Leslie by not finishing the scavenger hunt, Ron delivers one last time, suggesting that the only thing Leslie likes more than making people happy is being right. So Ben considers anything that Leslie changed his mind on, and quickly figures out where she is. Valentine’s Day is saved!

In a hilarious episode chock full of puzzle fun — anagrams and acrostics and riddle-solving of all kinds — it’s very cool that one of the core values of puzzle-solving is what saved the day: deductive reasoning.

Every crossword clue and riddle requires a certain mindset, where you get into sync with what the riddlemaster or puzzle creator was thinking, usually in a glorious a-ha moment. Seeing Ron and Ben do the same when all other puzzle skills failed was a testament to the puzzly tenacity and deductive reasoning that makes for a truly satisfying puzzle-solving experience.

As always, it’s a real treat to see puzzles incorporated into a narrative like this. Instead of a time-killer or a mere passing interest, they become linchpins of each story. The puzzles create conflict, drive epiphanies, and bring people together.

And in that spirit, I can’t think of a more perfect way to end this entry than this video clip, featuring the episode’s last few moments:

Puzzles in Pop Culture: The Simpsons (revisited!)

In previous editions of Puzzles in Pop Culture, I’ve recapped a classic episode of M*A*S*H and delved into the rich puzzling history of MacGyver.

Today, however, I’m returning to the ever-giving well of puzzly goodness provided by that unstoppable animated juggernaut, The Simpsons.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the show’s hilarious ventures in the worlds of brain-teasers and crosswords, but I neglected one shining example of puzzleriffic fun in Season 20 episode “Gone Maggie Gone.” (Oddly enough, the same season that featured “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words.”)

In an episode that playfully melds elements of Gone Baby Gone, Ratatouille, and The Goonies, while delightfully skewering National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, Homer accidentally leaves Maggie on the doorstep of a convent. When the nuns take her in and Homer can’t retrieve her, Lisa infiltrates the convent, discovering a series of elaborate puzzles that may lead to both Maggie and a jewel hidden in Springfield.

The puzzles take center stage early in this episode, as Homer encounters his own version of the cabbage, wolf, and goat river-crossing puzzle — in this case, featuring Maggie, Santa’s Little Helper, and a colorful bottle of rat poison. (His attempt to solve this puzzle is how Maggie ends up in the convent in the first place.)

Lisa’s first clue is to “seek God with heart and soul,” which leads her to play “Heart and Soul” on the church organ. After a ridiculously overelaborate Rube Goldberg device opens up, the next clue tells her to seek the biggest man-made ring in Springfield.

After a red herring and a stop for some goofy exposition from amateur puzzle-solvers Comic Book Guy and Principal Skinner, Lisa deduces that the biggest ring in Springfield is, in fact, the word RING in the Hollywood-esque Springfield Sign in the hills, and the adventurous trio sets off.

Hidden on the giant letters of the Springfield Sign is the message “Great crimes kill holy sage,” which Lisa dutifully anagrams into the message “Regally, the rock gem is Lisa.” Naturally, she does so just in time for Mr. Burns (the requisite shadowy Freemason figure) to emerge and take everyone back to the convent.

When she arrives, the nuns tell her Maggie is in fact the gem they’ve been seeking, and they re-anagram the message to read, “It’s really Maggie, Sherlock.” A pretty impressive feat of wordplay, I’d say.

(Naturally, Marge enters the scene here and sets everyone to rights by taking Maggie home. Bart sits on the throne of the gem child just vacated by Maggie, and ends up transforming the world into a nightmarish hellscape, as you’d expect.)

With elements of logic puzzles, brain-teasers, and anagram goodness, this episode is a treat for puzzlers of all ages, plus it’s hysterical to boot. The Simpsons excels at not simply including puzzles in their stories, but making the puzzles the linchpin of the story, something to drive the characters to learn and grow and challenge themselves.

While this episode was a little goofier and a little less heartfelt than “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” it remains a worthwhile entry in the Puzzles in Pop Culture library.

A twoderful holiday five you and yours!

A holiday hello to my fellow puzzlefiends and solvers!

In the giving spirit of Christmas, I wanted to leave a small token of wordplay wonder for you. As such, I’m happy to present one of my all-time favorite comedy routines, a Victor Borge classic called “Inflationary Language.” It’s a little word puzzle in and of itself, and I think you’ll quite enjoy.

This is impossible!

There are puzzles out there for every skill level, from super-easy to staggeringly challenging. And every once in a while, you will come across a puzzle that feels expressly engineered to be as difficult as possible, if not borderline mind-meltingly impossible, even for an experienced solver.

If you’ve ever suspected a puzzlesmith of such diabolical shenaniganry, you’ll probably feel vindicated by Sean Adams’s post on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, a bitingly funny introduction from a (hopefully) mythical puzzle book.