The Great Crossword Debate: Overused Vs. Obscure

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Making a great crossword puzzle is not easy. Heck, making a GOOD crossword puzzle is not easy.

You want the theme to be creative, innovative even, but still something that can be intuited from a clever title and crafty clues.

You want the clues to be engaging, challenging, funny, tricky, and loaded with wordplay and personality.

And you want the grid fill to be fresh and interesting, yet accessible. You want to avoid obscurities, abbreviations, nonsensical partial-phrases, and the dreaded Naticks where two difficult entries cross.

But you also want to add to the lexicon of grid fill, leaving behind the tired vowel-heavy words that have become cliche or crosswordese.

Even if you accomplish all that, you also want your puzzle to have an overall consistent level of difficulty. Having a bunch of easy words in the grid only highlights the hard words necessitated when you construct yourself into a corner. A sudden spike in vocabulary and eccentricity is always noticeable.

So completing every grid becomes a balancing act between new and old, pop culture-loaded and traditional, obscure and overused.

This raises the question posed in a Reddit thread recently:

Which bothers you more, words that you probably wouldn’t know without a dictionary OR filling out OLEO and ARIA for the millionth time?

Both options had their proponents, so I’d like to give you my thoughts on each side of this cruciverbalist coin.


obscure_language

Obscure Over Overused

A well-constructed grid can overcome the occasional obscure entry. After all, since you have Across and Down entries, several accessible Across answers can hand you a difficult Down answer that you didn’t know.

You can assist with an informative clue. It might get a little lengthy, but like a well-written trivia question, you can often provide enough context to get somebody in the ballpark, even if they don’t know the exact word or phrase they need. If it FEELS fair, I think solvers will forgive some peculiar entries, as long as you don’t go overboard.

Also, if you’re a crossword fan, you’re probably a word nerd, and who doesn’t like learning new words?

As one contributor to the thread said, “I’d rather eke out a solution than fill in EKE OUT or EKE BY again.”


News-Keep-Calm-and-Carry-This-Overused-Phrase-to-the-Grave-for-College-Students

Overused Over Obscure

The very nature of crosswords demands letter arrangements that are conducive to building tight grids. Your vowel-heavy entries, your alternating consonant-vowel ABAB patterns, the occasional all-consonants abbreviation or all-vowels exhalation or size measurement… these are necessary evils.

But that doesn’t mean the cluing has to be boring. I absolutely love it when a constructor finds a new twist on an entry you’ve seen a billion times. I laughed out loud when Patti Varol clued EWE as “Baa nana?” because it was a take I’d never seen before.

Here are a few more examples of really smart ways I’ve seen overused entries clued:

  • “It’s never been the capital of England (and it surely won’t be now)” for EURO (Steve Faiella)
  • “Name-dropper’s abbr.” for ETAL (Patrick Berry)
  • “It’s three before November” for KILO (Andy Kravis)
  • “Fix plot holes, maybe” for HOE (Peter Gordon)
  • “50/50, e.g.” for ONE (Michael Shteyman). This one really plays with your expectations.
  • “Hawaiian beach ball?” for LUAU (George Barany)

Still, this is no excuse for going incredibly obtuse with your cluing just to be different. Making an esoteric reference just to avoid saying “Sandwich cookie” for OREO might be more annoying to a solver than just the overused answer itself.

On the flip side, you can treat them as gimmes, cluing them with familiar phrasing and letting them serve as the jumping-off points for longer, more difficult entries or the themed entries the puzzle is constructed around. Some familiar words are always welcome, particularly if a solver is feeling daunted with a particular puzzle’s or day’s standard difficulty.

(One poster even suggested pre-populating the grid with common crosswordese like OLEO, kinda like the set numbers in a Sudoku. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that approach before.)


conman1112

So, have we come to any conclusions today? Probably not.

As I said before, it’s a tightrope every constructor must walk on the way to finishing a crossword. Every constructor has a different method for getting across, a different formula for success. Some even manage to make it look effortless.

What do you think, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Do you favor overused entries or obscure ones? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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Crosswordese in a Random Picture

It’s always fun when you encounter crosswordese in the wild. By definition, crosswordese involves words you only see in crosswords, so a real-world encounter is a rare and curious thing.

Someone posted the following picture on Reddit, in a post titled “How NYT constructors dress, presumably.”

(It differs wildly depending on the constructor, by the way.)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to it. But there are several classic crossword entries in this picture.

The A-LINE dress, the YSL on the purse, the ECRU shade. Quite the OLIO of puzzly elements.

Sure, the dress isn’t MIDI — though the coat might be! — but hey, beggars can’t be choosers.

Naturally, the commenters on that page suggested other crossword entries that might be out of sight, joking there’s an ETUI in her purse, an OBI missing from her coat, an EPEE in her concealed right hand, or ESTEE perfume in the air.

I for one suspect she’s close to her destination, her ETA just a SEC or two away.

Is she in EUR. somewhere? Perhaps near the RHINE or the RHONE or the AARE? Is she in OSLO?

Can you find any other examples of crosswordese lurking in this photo, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Or maybe you have another picture packed with puzzly potential? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Hunt for New Crossword-Friendly Vocabulary!

crossword1

Epee. Etui. Acai. Amie. Anoa. Oleo. Iota.

We’ve seen a lot of curious words in crosswords over the years. Some of them are blips on the radar, appearing for a bit then vanishing without a trace. Others become part of the fabric of crosswords, forever synonymous with those enigmatic black-and-white grids under the banner of “crosswordese.”

It does make me wonder, though. What words haven’t we seen yet? What curious combinations of vowels and consonants await solvers in the future? Will they be blips or will they be the stuff of legends?

So I decided to try out different words that were either heavy on vowels or had strange letter patterns to see which ones had appeared in The New York Times crossword and when, according to the database on XWordInfo. And I turned up some curious results.

COOEE hasn’t appeared since April 1996. FLYBY hasn’t been in since 2007. QWERTY has only appeared twice, and not in almost a decade.

And yet, equally strange words like VORPAL and CRWTH haven’t appeared at all.

It’s hard to predict what odd vocabulary will strike a chord with constructors.

obiwanobi

I mean, sure, there’s a whiff of disdain surrounding crosswordese, but surely as former obscurities become more familiar, crosswordese must evolve and move forward as well. What will be the new crosswordese?

It’s not like we’re going to have new rivers, mountains, bays, or other geographical areas, for the most part. (True, the Aral Sea is pretty much the Aralkum Desert now, but that hasn’t stopped constructors from continuing to reference it.)

But I’m getting off-topic. Where would we find this new potential grid fill?

There are some delightful nuggets of linguistic oddness lurking in old dictionaries that have promise as part of a new generation of crosswordese. I mean, ECHO and OCHO are all well and good, but what about OCHE?

That’s the line behind which a darts player must stand, by the way. Zero hits in XWordInfo.

You need peculiar letter combinations to help fill your grid? How about BADAUD, UGHTEN, YERK, CAGG, and BORT? I could easily see these weird words getting constructors out of some jams when it comes to grid construction.

Sure, we’d have to educate solvers on these words, but if we can make ETUI a well-known form of crosswordese, why not these?

(Yes, I know, you want definitions. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. A badaud is a dimwitted gossip-spreader who believes just about anything. Ughten is morning twilight, the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises. To yerk is to beat someone vigorously and with rapid efficiency. A bort is a poor-quality diamond or a fragment of such a diamond (as well as a license plate that commonly runs out at Itchy and Scratchy Land). A cagg is a solemn vow not to drink for a certain amount of time.)

None of those words have appeared in the Times according to XWordInfo. Except BORT, but even that hasn’t appeared since 1993. Which is amazing, because the BORT joke on The Simpsons I referenced above happened in October of 1994. Come on, constructors, don’t leave us hanging. BORT did not have to lapse into irrelevance.

Speaking of words that have fallen by the wayside, I decided to try lost positives next.

Lost positives are words that were previously commonplace, but have been lost to time, while words with negative connotations based on them have survived. You know inept, inert, disheveled, uncouth, unkempt, and inane, but how often do you see ept, ert, sheveled, couth, kempt, pecunious, or ane?

Thus, lost positives.

So what happened when I checked them against the XWordInfo database?

EPT has appeared in the Times — as slang or a joking reference — but ERT hasn’t (except as a Scottish word). Nor has SHEVELED. KEMPT isn’t exactly common, but it has appeared in the last five years. COUTH hasn’t since 2003.

ANE, meanwhile, has hundreds of appearances, but as a hydrocarbon suffix, a Wheel of Fortune reference (“an e”), or as part of Sue Ane Langdon’s name.

So there’s some potential here.

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[Image courtesy of A Date With An Amateur.]

Hey, ERT gives me an idea. If we’re really going to discover some exciting, strange, and unexpected new grid fill, I think we have to look toward other languages.

All sorts of words that originate in other languages end up as part of the expansive English vocabulary. As James Nicoll once said, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

Why not continue on in that fine tradition and add to the potential puzzle word lexicon?

In the last few years, the concept of hygge has grown in popularity. Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. You can see how people would latch onto the concept for themselves.

So I was surprised to discover that hygge hadn’t appeared in the NYT. That’s a letter pattern begging for crossings.

Personally, I think we should start with words like hygge. A word that exists in another language to describe a concept that there simply isn’t a word for in English.

Saudade, while a bit long for casual grid use, is another word that has started making the transition into English vernacular. Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves.

There is a world of vocabulary out there waiting to be harnessed for crossword obscurity, and there’s even a website dedicated to it.

If you check out Eunoia, you’ll find hundreds of foreign words to encapsulate moods and ideas, feelings and expressions that can plug holes both in your vocabulary and your grids.

Crossword.

Here’s a small sampling of words I found on the site that might help cruciverbalists who have constructed themselves into a corner:

Resfeber is a Swedish word for “the feeling of excitement and nervousness experienced by a traveler before undertaking a journey.”

Ubuntu is a Zulu word for “a quality that includes the essential human virtues, a combination of compassion and humility.”

Mångata is a Swedish word for “the road-like reflection of moonlight on water.”

Wegbier is a German word for “a beer you’re having on your way somewhere (i.e. a party).”

Karelu is a Tulu word for “the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.”

Rauxa is a Catalan word for “sudden determination or action.”

Umay is a Tagalog word for “getting tired of a certain food.”

To Fernweh is to have a yearning to see distant places (in German).

Either half of wabi-sabi, a Japanese word meaning “finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay” could prove handy in a grid.

So I put the question to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. What words would you like to see appear in crosswords more? Where do you think we should look for fresh, new, peculiar crosswordese? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!


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The Fun Side of Crosswordese

Crossword.

Anyone who solves crosswords is familiar with some aspect of crosswordese, even if they don’t know it by that name. 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 is “words that crop up a lot in grids but are otherwise pretty useless.”

Part of becoming a better solver is building a personal lexicon of crosswordese and common crossword words so you’re not getting tripped up by the same obscurities, peculiarities, and cruciverbalist celebrities that so often occupy those black-and-white grids we enjoy.

Some of these words seem destined to remain obscure. ETUI will most likely never become commonplace. Most people don’t fence, and couldn’t tell an EPEE from a foil or a saber.

Oona-Chaplin

[Image courtesy of Celebs.Infoseemedia.com.]

Others are cyclical. OONA was Chaplin’s wife, until her granddaughter of the same name become a featured player in the first few seasons of Game of Thrones. Similarly, both ELSAS Lancaster and the movie feline have Frozen to thank for that name gaining new life in puzzles these days.

(Here’s hoping there’s a crop of Eastern-European actresses that will storm TV and film soon and breathe new life into clues for ONA, UNA, UTA, and OSA.)

But, for the most part, crosswordese evokes negative feelings. It’s easy to come up with a list of the words that irk us — the ones we’ve never encountered in the real world, or the ones that we simply cannot remember, even after filling them into a dozen grids or more.

But today I’d like to focus on the ones I do enjoy, the strange words I’ve learned through crossword solving and construction that have broadened my vocabulary and sent my mind down unexpected tangents and pathways I would’ve never otherwise wandered through.

edsel

[Image courtesy of Driving.ca.]

EDSEL

It’s amazing how a convenient letter pattern can keep an infamous failure in the minds of solvers decades and decades later. It was only manufactured for two years, and that was SIXTY years ago. And yet, whenever I see “Ford flop” or something similar as a clue, I always smile. It’s universal at this point.

NE’ER

There’s a lot of poetic license — see what I did there? — taken with poetry terms in crosswords, and most of them are well-and-truly overused. But for some reason, NEER ne’er bothers me. In fact, I enjoy seeing it. It probably has to do with “ne’er-do-well,” which is an incredibly fun term to throw around. It’s right up there with “deipnosophist” and “raconteur” as far as descriptive terms that need to make a comeback.

iago

[Image courtesy of Digital Spy.]

IAGO

He was first clued as a master manipulator from the works of Shakespeare, then as a conniving Disney sidekick who slowly turns toward the light over the course of the franchise. In either case, he’s a fascinating character whose handy combination of vowels ensures he’ll be a part of crosswords for years to come.

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[Images courtesy of StarWars.com and Polina Couture.]

OBI

As someone who is both a Star Wars fan and deeply interested in Japanese culture, I always enjoy when OBI makes an appearance in a grid. (More for the former reasons than the latter, if I’m being honest.)

In fact, this blog entry inspired me to search XWordInfo to see when OBI started being clued as part of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s name (twice, which is weird yet lyrical) and not just as a Japanese sash.

Although the character debuted in the first Star Wars film in 1977, his name wasn’t used in The New York Times crossword to clue OBI until 1990!

These are just the first common crossword entries that came to mind. There are a few others, not to mention all of the neat animals — mostly bird-related or African in origin — that crop up in crosswords. KEA and ROC, IBEX and ELAND, OKAPI and RATEL, just to name a few.

But now I turn the subject over to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. What are your favorite common crossword words or bits of crosswordese that appear in grids but don’t irk you? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Let’s Play Crossword Bingo!

Crossword.

If you solve enough crosswords, you’re bound to encounter some words more often than others.

Maybe the word has grid-friendly letters or a letter pattern that facilitates editing. Maybe it’s an otherwise obscure item that crosswords have kept in the zeitgeist.

Or maybe it’s a just three-letter word with vowels on either end, be it a female sheep, a tavern drink, a mine find, or fury, and that corner just won’t be completed without one of them.

Some solvers find fault with those words, the constructors who use them, or the outlets that publish puzzles featuring them. Other solvers, however, find fun ways to acknowledge their ubiquity.

For instance, a reddit user under the handle “atleasttheresmusic” created a bingo card based on words that crop up regularly in The New York Times crossword:

xwd bingo 1

Not only did they hit some classic examples of crosswordese, but they even managed to categorize their entries, highlighting crossword tropes like “short, poetic words” and the frequent use of abbreviations.

Between the bingo card itself and the many suggestions shared by fellow puzzlers in the comments, I couldn’t resist taking a crack at making a crossword bingo card of my own:

xwd bingo 2

As you can see, I’ve also organized the columns by category; from left to right, there’s abbreviations, names, vowel-heavy words, 3-letter entries, and non-U.S. terminology.

I couldn’t fit every entry I wanted to — EKE/IKE fell by the wayside, as did EWER — but I managed to jam a fair amount of crosswordese and personal pet peeves onto the card. Plus, given how often ALEE and ALOE appear, they’re basically a free space in the center of the card.

So how did I do, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? What words should I have included? Did the cleaner card created by “atleasttheresmusic” win out over mine, or did we both succeed in having some fun at the expense of crosswords?

And, most importantly, how quickly would you get BINGO if you used one of our cards? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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View a Clue: Crossword Characters Answers!

A few weeks ago, we brought back one of our trickiest recurring features: the View a Clue game!

If you recall, I selected ten fictional characters that commonly show up in crossword grids — some have become crosswordese at this point — to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s give it a shot!


#1 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Heroes and Villains Fandom.]

Answer: ODIE, loyal and drooly companion of Garfield and his owner Jon Arbuckle


#2 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Answer: ASTA, beloved dog of film detectives Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series


#3 (3 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Redbubble.]

Answer: REN, from Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy


#4 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Disney Fandom.]

Answer: SMEE, Captain Hook’s right-hand man from the Peter Pan stories


#5 (4 letters) [I’ve included two possible characters for this one.]

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[Images courtesy of E! Online and Wikipedia.]

Answer: ELSA


#6 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Hulu.]

Answer: EYRE, more specifically Jane Eyre


#7 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Answer: IGOR, the assistant of Dr. Frankenstein


#8 (5 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Soap Central.]

Answer: ERICA, more specifically Erica Kane of All My Children


#9 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

Answer: AHAB, Captain of the Pequod from Moby-Dick


#10 (3 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Warner Bros.]

Answer: RIN, as in Rin Tin Tin, the famous Hollywood dog


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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