Representation in Crosswords: A Fresh Look

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We live in a data-driven world these days. Everything is quantified, analyzed, charted, and graphed. Your social media use alone is an absolute treasure trove of data that tells businesses all sorts of information about your activities, spending habits, and more.

So it should come as no surprise to you that the world of crosswords is no different. In recent years, we have been able to analyze decades of crosswords like never before, drawing important conclusions and uncovering trends both intriguing and shocking.

Back in 2016, the data analysis of programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were then edited by Timothy Parker. Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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This led to Parker’s removal from both the USA Today and Universal crosswords.

But the impact of data analysis in crosswords doesn’t stop there. In 2018, Erik Agard compiled stats on how often the work of female constructors appeared in the major crossword outlets across the first four months of that year. It was an eye-opening piece about gender disparity among published constructors, backed up by smart research.

And there has been a greater push for inclusion on the construction side of crosswords. Back in March, at the urging of constructor Rebecca Falcon, several outlets participated in Women’s March, a concentrated effort in the puzzle community to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

(It comes as no surprise that two of the voices encouraging female puzzle creators are Erik Agard and David Steinberg, both of whom stepped up massively in the wake of the Timothy Parker scandal and have been advocates for greater inclusiveness in crosswords.)

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[The list of all of the female constructors involved in Universal’s Women’s March project.]

This does raise the question, however, of inclusiveness when it comes to cluing and crossword entries.

And that question has been tackled quite brilliantly by Michelle McGhee in an article for The Pudding.

Striving to “better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles,” McGhee made a strong point about the influence crosswords have as a reflection on society:

Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).

A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and significant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.

And she put the data to work to prove her point.

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Sampling tens of thousands of crosswords from Saul Pwanson’s puzzle database, she and her fellow researchers sorted people mentioned in crossword clues and used as crossword answers by race and gender according to US Census categories.

And their conclusion, sadly, was hardly unexpected:

We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else.

Not only did they chart the percentages of representation, but they also created charts illustrating the most commonly referenced people in crossword answers in the New York Times puzzle.

The goal? They wanted to quantify the concept of “common knowledge” in crosswords in the hopes of redefining it in a way that better reflects a true common knowledge, one that represents everyone.

I’m only scratching the surface of this article, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of crosswords, what they say about society, and what they COULD say about society. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read McGhee’s full piece here.

It’s the sort of journalism, commentary, and data analysis that helps push a problematic aspect of crosswords into the spotlight and keep it there. Yes, there have been great steps forward for representation in crosswords, both within the puzzles and in the realm of constructors, but we can do better. We must do better.

And work by folks like Michelle McGhee and her graph-savvy data miners is a valuable part of the process.


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Halfway through the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League!

boswords new

Last night marked the fifth week of competitive puzzly fun in the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers registered to participate — which you can still do now! — they chose the difficulty level that suited them best.)

With a lineup of top-flight constructors involved and the Boswords team organizing, it was a can’t miss prospect, and hundreds of solvers signed up for the challenge of two months of themeless puzzle solving and a bit of friendly competition.

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Now that we’re officially halfway through the season, it feels like the right time to take a moment and reflect on the last four weeks of puzzling.

I will only be referencing the previous four puzzles — not last night’s Week 5 themeless — so there are only potential spoilers for non-participants. Competitors may read at their leisure.

Although I am quite familiar with crosswords, I am far from the fastest or cagiest solver, nor have I ever competed in any tournament solving, so I opted to enter the Choppy rank.

And I have very much enjoyed the experience thus far. Themeless puzzles always often a fun challenge, mixing long answers — often crossing or stacked with other long answers — with strong cluing, clever grid design, and most notably, no theme around which to frame the grid (or your solve, if you happen to dig into the theme entries immediately).

The cluing feels very fresh, mixing topical entries, meme fodder, and slang with traditional crossword classics and a dash of pop culture references. Although my lack of football knowledge betrayed me in week 1, I’ve made up some ground in weeks 3 and 4, posting my two quickest times, both with clean grids.

My times are far from cheetah-like; the top solvers in the Choppy rankings often solve these puzzles in half the time I do, and manage perfect scores to boot. I am getting faster, it seems, which is probably due to a growing familiarity with the solving interface, wasting less time maneuvering the screen.

I’m definitely finding it challenging. There are plenty of clues I pass over two or three times before coming up with something that fits the entries I’ve already placed, and these diabolical constructors always slip some devious wordplay and a-ha cluing into their puzzles.

In October alone, solvers contended with puzzles from Tracy Gray, Nate Cardin, Amanda Rafkin, and David Quarfoot, each bringing a unique style and flavor to their grid entries and cluing. Each themeless has been a challenge all its own, and once you finally figure out each solver’s tricks, you’re confronted with a new constructor the next week, and you start all over again.

Still, it’s great fun, a nice puzzly touch to the week that feels like you’re part of a community, bolstered not only by a communal solving experience once a week, but by Twitch chats and interactions with the organizers and fellow solvers.

We’re only halfway through, and I’d have to declare the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League a rousing success. I can’t wait to see what surprises the November puzzles bring, and what awaits the top solvers in the championship round.

Whether you’re competing alongside us or simply enjoying puzzles at your own speed, thanks for visiting. And happy puzzling!


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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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A Collection of Cracking Crossword Clues

Someone recently asked me about my favorite crossword clue, and after mentioning four or five off the top of my head, I cut myself off and tried to explain that it’s impossible for me to pick one.

So many clues are out there that surprised me, or outwitted me, or made me laugh, or made me think in an unexpected way. I could never narrow it down..

Regular readers who have seen my reviews of various crossword tournament puzzles will recall I like to highlight favorite clues.

I actually keep track of clues from constructors as I solve various crosswords. Not only are they often witty, hilarious, and/or impressive, but they inspire me as a puzzler to always try to find entertaining, engaging new angles for these crucial crossword elements.

So today, I’d like to pull some favorites from my personal clue vault and give them some time in the spotlight.

(I’m crediting the constructor listed on the byline for each clue. These clues may have been created elsewhere and reused, created by the constructor, or changed by an editor, I have no way of knowing. So I’m just doing my best to give credit where credit is due.)

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One of the most engaging aspects of crossword cluing is how constructors can accomplish so much with just a few words.

I love a good misdirection clue, because it not only has a straightforward meaning that sends you one way, but it has a true secondary meaning that usually only emerges once you’ve considered the clue for a bit.

The word ANTE lends itself to this sort of cluing — particularly given the meaning of “house” with regards to casinos and cards — and I think Janie Smulyan’s “House payments” clue was the best one I’ve seen in a while.

Similarly, Peter Gordon is a whiz at making a few words speak volumes, and his clue “Foot in ‘the door'” made my mind go in a few directions before you finally land on IAMB.

Of course, it’s not just concise phrasing that lends itself to wordplay. Patti Varol led solvers down a delightful garden path with the clue “They may be called on account of rain,” which cleverly clues the answer CABS.

You can also use multiple examples to mislead solvers. Neville Fogarty accomplished this with the clue “Org. with Magic and Wizards,” which no doubt has people pondering Hogwarts or the Ministry of Magic before realizing the answer is NBA.

Patrick Berry offered another terrific example with the clue “Time or Money,” where the capitalization is the only hint to the true answer, MAG.

Another genre of cluing that doesn’t get enough love is trivia cluing. I love learning new things, and crosswords don’t just teach you peculiarities of language like variant spellings. They also teach you the names of European rivers, organizational abbreviations, and even silent film stars.

And when a clue offers some trivia I didn’t know, that’s just a solving bonus.

Aimee Lucido is very good at keeping her trivia clues topical, and she’s previously used “127 congresspeople, as of last month” for WOMEN. In a similar vein, she taught a little bit of gender history with the clue “All the students at Dartmouth, until 1972” for MEN.

Evan Birnholz offered some musical information with the clue “1986 #1 hit ‘On My Own,’ e.g., ironically,” slyly cluing the answer word DUET.

Paolo Pasco snuck this very peculiar nugget of information into one of his crosswords, explaining that “Coconut oil has one of 4.” This clue is almost impenetrable until you realize the answer is SPF. (Was this covered in an episode of Gilligan’s Island or Survivor or something?)

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[Image courtesy of Collider.]

Howard Jones managed to incorporate both trivia and an act of misdirection with the clue “This might begin with E,” deftly making it hard to see the answer EYETEST.

Craig Mazan and Jeff Chan presented some movie trivia with the clue “Word cried 15 times in a row by Meg Ryan in ‘When Harry Met Sally...'” Anyone who has seen the film instantly recognizes the answer here: YES. But the thought of the constructors actually counting for this clue tickles me greatly.

As we pointed out above, multiple examples can really enhance a clue, and that counts in trivia clues as well. Peter Gordon played with capitalization with the clue “Santa Fe and Tucson, e.g.” for the answer SUV. Terrific misdirect here.

Bryan Betancur, meanwhile, drew a nice character parallel with the clue “Pixar hero or Verne antihero” for the answer NEMO.

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[Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar.]

I know some crossword outlets aren’t fans of using clues that specifically reference each other — “With 21-Across, name of Charlie Chaplin film,” for instance — but other publishers are completely fine with this style of cluing.

And naturally, that allows constructors to have some fun making connections and using clues to reference each other.

Matt Gaffney had two clues that offered information on each other with the pairing “33-Across, in a lab” and “30-Across, on the kitchen table,” which clued NACL and SALT respectively.

Peter Gordon had a doozy of a clue in a themeless puzzle with HARRY ANGSTROM as an answer, where he tied that entry into a clue with a mathematical twist.

The clue “Film character whose last name is roughly 95 septillion times longer than 23-Across’s?” for BUZZ LIGHTYEAR is a stroke of genius. Having two characters with units of size/distance for names really works here, and the science/math nerd in me thoroughly enjoyed.

Finally, a trick I don’t see too often — but very much appreciate — is a clue that references ITSELF in order to play with the solver’s expectations.

Rebecca Falcon nailed this idea with her clue for 46-Across: “With 46-Across, comforting words.” The answer? THERE.

Gotta love it.

What are some of your favorite crossword clues, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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A New Weekly Crossword League Coming Soon!

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The internet puzzle community has done an impressive job over the last six months of adapting to the social distancing restrictions of the current COVID-19 crisis, with tournaments like Crossword Tournament From Your Couch, Lollapuzzoola, and Boswords successfully going virtual in 2020.

And now John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the creative team behind Boswords, have announced a new tournament-inspired online puzzle project to keep crossword fans engaged for the next few months!

It’s called The Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League, and every Monday night in October and November, a new themeless crossword will be posted for competitors to solve. That’s eight puzzles (plus a championship round to follow), along with a preseason puzzle to get people used to the format.

Although each week’s puzzle only has one grid, there will be three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. When you register to participate, you’ll choose the difficulty level for your clues.

From least challenging to most challenging, the ranks are called Smooth, Choppy, and Stormy. (Quite appropriate, given that we’re heading into unfamiliar waters here!)

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Each week’s puzzle will be accompanied by a Twitch stream where participants can follow along and discuss all things puzzly with their fellow crossword enthusiasts!

You can compete as an individual or as part of a pair, and with a one-time registration fee of $25 — or $5 for students and those in need — that’s very reasonable indeed!

Not only that, but they’ve already announced the team of constructors assembled for the League, and it is a stacked roster of talent.

Nate Cardin, Emily Carroll, Tracy Gray, David Quarfoot, Amanda Rafkin, Claire Rimkus, Sid Sivakumar, Yacob Yonas, and Stella Zawistowski are all contributing puzzles, and you won’t know ahead of time which constructor’s puzzle you’ll get on a given week, which keeps things interesting.

With experienced crossword constructor and editor Brad Wilber as the League’s puzzle editor and the dynamic duo of Lieb and Kingsley as assistant editors and League directors, I have high hopes for this project going forward.

Check out the full informational video on the Boswords homepage, as well as links for further info and registration! (Register by September 28th to participate!)

I think this is an incredibly cool and ambitious project, and a really neat way to bring tournament-style solving in a bite-size format to as many puzzlers as possible.

Will you be taking part in this exciting new puzzle challenge, fellow puzzlers? 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!

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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.

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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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