Too Topical? Too Safe? Too Family Friendly? — What Belongs in Crosswords?

Building a great crossword is a balancing act.

Your grid entries need to be interesting, yet accessible. You need to navigate long crossings and tight corners without resorting to too many abbreviations, too much crosswordese, or creating the dreaded Natick, a crossing of two obscure entries. Some solvers don’t like partial phrases, others don’t like proper names or brand names.

Your cluing has to be clever but not impenetrable. How much wordplay is too much? How many fill-in-the-blank clues before your clue section resembles your grid? The cluing must be fresh and vibrant yet timeless and not too of-its-era to make the cut for reprint and collection later.

No matter how you clue it, older solvers may decry newer names, slang, terminology, or pop culture references, while younger solvers will bemoan not just older references they consider passe, but long-established crossword-friendly words they quickly tire of seeing.

And that’s all without considering the difficulty in creating engaging, interesting themes or gimmicks for the puzzle.

Man, it’s amazing crosswords get made at all.

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[Image courtesy of Mike Peters and The Comic Strips.]

That question of fresh entries and cluing vs. older/more familiar fare is a curious one. It raises further questions.

For instance, how much can you talk about what’s going on in the world?

By referring to unpleasant topics, however topical, will you alienate solvers who use the crossword as an escape? Or do you risk the puzzle feeling too sanitized and safe by NOT acknowledging the circumstances of the world at the time of the puzzle’s publication?

There are arguments for both sides. I mean, who wants to see ADOLF in a grid? (But then again, it’s not like IDI AMIN has a hard time finding his way into grid fill.)

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Margaret Farrar believed that crosswords should avoid “death, disease, war and taxes.” Purposely avoiding unpleasant fill and cluing is informally known as the “Sunday Morning Breakfast Test.” (Our friends at Penny Press know plenty about this, as they shy away from unpleasant entries with diligence.)

But on the flip side, to ignore the unpleasantness of the world potentially ignores the people that unpleasantness affects.

As we continue to push for greater representation in crosswords in both editorial staff and constructors, you cannot deny that including the experiences of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community somewhat necessitates facing those unpleasant aspects of our history and our society.

To exclude them is to exclude potentially thought-provoking and important fill and cluing. (One could easily argue that the vast majority of our own Eyes Open crosswords would not pass the Sunday Morning Breakfast Test.)

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[Image courtesy of Charmy’s Army.]

Not everyone greets adding new cultural fill with open arms, of course. A few years ago, an LA Times crossword solver complained to us (on our holiday gift guide post, of all places) about “ignorant ghetto language” in the crossword. He referred specifically to innocuous entries like “sup,” “did,” and “street cred.”

Thankfully, he is an outlier.

But on the topic of excluding words from crosswords, when Will Shortz was asked about it, he had an interesting response:

If a word or term is used in the columns of The Times, or in cultured society in general, I think it’s probably O.K. for a crossword, even if it’s touchy or slightly unpleasant. I strive to have crosswords reflect real life as much as possible. … I don’t believe in banning words, except for the very worst. And I’d be happy to abolish the term ‘breakfast test’ completely.

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I think this is a topic I’m going to ask crossword solvers about more often. I’d be curious to see where they stand on crossword content and topicality.

I suspect opinions will vary, but I also suspect that most solvers welcome new fill, new entries, and new references in clues. Every crossword is an opportunity to learn and expand one’s knowledge, and add to the mental lexicon of crossword knowledge we each build as we solve.

So where do you stand, fellow puzzlers? Do you prefer your crosswords as an escape or as a puzzly reflection of the world around us? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Scrabble Removes 400 Offensive Words (and Tournament Players Are Freaking Out)

Pretty much everyone has at least one Scrabble friend. You know, that person who just destroys all comers by placing unlikely words and unexpected additions, snagging every last available point each turn.

I have two such friends, and their rivalry was so legendary that, during one particularly high-stakes game, the loser would have to write and perform a song celebrating the Scrabble supremacy of the victor.

And those are just Scrabble fans. Scrabble tournament players are another breed entirely.

Let me give you one example. In 2015, a guy from New Zealand won the French Scrabble Championship. Without speaking a word of French.

Yes, this guy memorized every word in the French Scrabble Dictionary and won the championship.

That is next level.

Which makes today’s news story slightly more understandable… even if it is still incredibly stupid and sad.

Mattel, the company who owns the rights to Scrabble outside North America, has come under fire for removing 400 words from the official accepted list of Scrabble words for being offensive or derogatory.

From an article published by UK outlet The Daily Star:

The company has refused to publish the list but the official word checker shows that the banned terms include epithets against black, Pakistani and Irish people as they believe the terms have no place in a family game.

The change follows a similar move by the American rights owner Hasbro and affects competition-level Scrabble, which is played by thousands of people at international tournaments.

And some competitive players claim this is overreaching by Hasbro and Mattel. In fact, three “prominent” members of WESPA, the World English-Language Scrabble Players Association, have supposedly quit competing in protest.

For the record, the Official Scrabble Dictionary, Fourth Edition contains 100,000 words. And for tournament play, the approved list of words reportedly runs as high as 278,000 words.

And these goofs are complaining about 400 offensive and derogatory words that, apparently, they simply cannot compete fairly without using.

Oh, and their argument against removing the words is equally stupid.

“Words listed in dictionaries and Scrabble lists are not slurs. They only become slurs when used with a derogatory purpose or intent, or used with a particular tone and in a particular context.” That’s according to Darryl Francis.

Who is Darryl Francis, you ask? Well, according to the Daily Star, he is “a British author who has overseen official Scrabble word lists since the 1980s.” Cool.

Well, good news for you, Darryl, that’s 400 fewer words to oversee.

According to Darryl, using the word on a Scrabble board is not offensive. Personally, I think puzzle constructor and author Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly in a similar discussion regarding entries like “Go OK” or “CHINK” (as in chink in one’s armor) when they appear in crossword grids:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

The same rule should also apply to a Scrabble board. If someone strolls by and sees one of those 400 words, that reflects poorly on the game, the players, and the entire event.

And when you consider that competitive Scrabble in general has come under fire in recent years for a perceived gender bias against women, you’d think they might want to avoid further social dust-ups.

I mean, I don’t recall these same doofuses complaining when LGBTQIA+ terminology was added to the dictionary as part of a 2800-word addition to the approved list. Was that “misguided social manipulation” then? Was that bowing to political correctness?

No. It was just a chance for more points.

Guess what, folks? The Scrabble overlords giveth, and the Scrabble overlords taketh away. Such is life.

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Oh, I nearly forgot. The other argument that has been made about removing these words from the accepted list regards the offensive words they DIDN’T remove.

Yup, Karen Richards, another member of WESPA — who helped to run the World Youth Scrabble Championship for 15 years — claims that these changes won’t make the game more family-friendly.

Why not?

Because children could still play other offensive words.

This is also a dumb argument.

That’s true. But they can’t play these offensive words, so there are fewer opportunities for these apparently slur-happy children to offend other people through the medium of Scrabble.

I wonder if she doesn’t bother to tell her children not to say the F-word, because they can just use another swear instead? I suspect not.

And I know, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, I know. This is a very minor, very stupid thing. So why are we talking about it?

I have a few reasons:

  • One, it’s puzzly and in the news, and that’s my wheelhouse.
  • Two, I cannot resist pointing out what gets “anti-PC” people all in a huff. I mean, I’m supposed to be the snowflake here, right? So why are they freaking out?
  • And three, it amazes me that in a world where there are big, important, actual problems, some folks go nuts over .4% of their potential Scrabble words going away. (That’s out of 100,000. When we go with 400 out of 278,000, it drops to .14%)

Seriously, tournament Scrabble players, get a grip. If you can’t win without these words, you probably wouldn’t win anyway.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: Where Is The Line?

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A few days ago, an entry in The New York Times Crossword caught the eye of a solver. That solver posted about it in the Facebook group “The Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory,” which is dedicated to encouraging new constructors to make and submit puzzles.

That post kicked off an intense debate about problematic entries and how to handle them. Not only is this topic far from settled, but it’s emblematic of a larger question: where is the line?

You see, one of the advantages of our modern Internet-savvy culture is that feedback is virtually instantaneous now. If someone is offended or troubled by an entry or clue in the Monday crossword, it doesn’t take days for a letter to the editor to arrive at the paper. It takes seconds to post online and reach a potential audience.

Of course, that rapid response is a double-edged sword, because hot takes and rush-to-judgment commentary are just as quick to spread.

Both sides of that double-edged sword were in full effect as the replies piled up on that original Facebook post. As those in agreement with the original poster offered their support, counterpoints rolled in, either in defense of the entry or the clue.

(Naturally, given that this is the Internet, some chose to expand on the topic in general disagreement with a culture they claimed was too sensitive and quick to condemn every little thing that offended them. But since those people are an incredible waste of time and energy and have little interest in genuine discussion, this will be my last mention of them.)

Other posters focused on the mechanics of the puzzle itself, pointing out easy fixes that would have prevented the potentially problematic word from appearing at all. Some of these folks sided with the original poster, pointing out that a word that is potentially problematic should be edited out, and it’s part of a constructor’s job to think of these things.

And that’s the question. How much should constructors and editors be taking the potentially problematic aspects of words into consideration when constructing?

True, it’s not always possible to anticipate every negative response to the words filling your grid or the accompanying clues. (Heck, we have numerous examples of words and clues slipping through that catch fire with part of the audience in the worst possible way.)

But is that part of a constructor’s job?

In my opinion, yes, it is.

Crosswords should be inclusive. They should be an engaging activity that evokes occasional frustration but eventual satisfaction, whether you’re completing a grid, unraveling a particularly tricky theme, or besting your previous solving time. It should be fun. It should be entertainment, a distraction.

It should NOT be a place where people feel excluded, or where personal or historical traumas surface because of cluing or grid fill.

For example, I don’t believe CHINK should appear in crosswords, even as “flaw in one’s armor,” because anyone casually glancing at the grid will only see that word, not necessarily the context.

We can do better.

[Image courtesy of Bogoreducare.org.]

Originally, I wasn’t going to mention the specific clue/entry at all, because the issue is larger than this one example. But knowing the word that offended our original poster adds context.

The entry was NOOSE, and the clue was “End of a hangman’s rope.”

For the poster, the associations surrounding both clue and entry were troubling. But, for the most part, the main reason for posting appeared to be twofold:

1. Pointing out that the word’s inclusion in the grid was easily avoidable
2. Asking if other constructors/aspiring constructors found the entry as problematic as she did

She wasn’t calling for peoples’ heads. She was opening a dialogue and inviting discussion. She made her personal feelings clear — by using the word “appalled” — but made the discussion about something larger than her individual reaction.

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Some replies concerned the clue more than the entry, pointing out that the noose was used for many other, non-negative uses. The general association of nooses with lynching was brought up, with some instantly making the connection while others felt it was unfair or hypersensitive to make that association. Others brought up the word LYNCH, asking if the entry was problematic even if the cluing was about director David or actress Evanna.

These aren’t easy questions to answer. This is obviously not a debate that will be concluded anytime soon. But it’s one worth having.

And when it comes to conclusions to draw from all this, I think the original poster said it best in one of her replies: “In my opinion, it’s better to err on the side of empathy.”

Amen.


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How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

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The battle to decrease gender inequality and increase representation in crosswords is ongoing. More people than ever are speaking up on behalf of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ constructors, and non-binary individuals when it comes to who is constructing the puzzles (and being properly credited), as well as how members of those groups are represented by current grid entries and cluing.

Natan Last is one of many people standing up to make crosswords better, more inclusive, and more emblematic of a richer melting pot of solvers and constructors. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Last neatly encapsulates both the movement for a more inclusive crossword publishing community and the many obstacles that stand in its way.

He starts with a single example — a debut puzzle by a female constructor, Sally Hoelscher — and the conversation that ensued when one puzzle aficionado asked about the ratio of women’s names to men’s names in the puzzle.

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[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

Originally there were no men’s names. One entry was edited in. And a discussion about parity in puzzles followed.

Last uses this example as a springboard into the greater argument about how modern crossword editing (and editors) discriminate through gatekeeping under the guise of what’s “familiar” or “obscure.”

From the article:

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.

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[Image courtesy of CNBC.]

But what is kept out is only part of the problem, of course. Last goes on to mention many of the same insensitive and offensive clues and entries we (and other outlets) have cited in the past.

He caps off this part of the article by highlighting Will Shortz’s responses to these troubling questions:

But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

A pretty damning statement, to be sure.

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Turning away from the problems represented by the most famous daily crossword in the world, Last pivots, turning a spotlight on those who are helping turn the tide in terms of representation and inclusivity.

He shouts-out well-respected and innovative editors like Erik Agard (of USA Today‘s crossword), David Steinberg (of Andrew McMeel Universal’s Puzzles and Games division), and Liz Maynes-Aminzade (of The New Yorker crossword), heaping praise on a fresh constructor-editor partnership that encourages new voices and greater diversity of content.

Last also mentions worthy projects like the Inkubator, Women of Letters, and Queer Qrosswords, as well as the Women’s March crossword movement inspired by the work of Rebecca Falcon.

Across the entire article, Last highlights a system problem in crosswords, challenges those responsible to do better, and praises those who are working for the greater good. And he does so in about a dozen paragraphs. That’s all. It’s efficiency and flow worthy of a top-notch constructor.

You should read it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.


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How Will Shortz Works

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[Image courtesy of Lifehacker.]

Last week, Lifehacker posted the latest edition of their How I Work series, which takes readers behind the scenes and into the workspaces of all sorts of experts, scientists, creators, and pop culture icons to see how they do what they do.

And New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz stepped into the spotlight to share his average workday and what his job is really like.

It provides an interesting snapshot of a job most people know very little about. (And, sadly, thoroughly debunks the glamorous crime-solving editorial life Lacey Chabert portrayed in A Puzzle to Die For earlier this year.)

Will talks about going through submissions, editing and polishing crosswords, working on clues, interacting with his assistants, and takes us into his workplace itself, including his reliance on book sources over Internet verification. He also namedrops his table tennis club (always table tennis, never ping-pong), and gives a well-deserved shout-out to XWordInfo.com as a world-class database of NYT crossword data.

But there’s one line in particular from the interview that stood out to me, and I suspect it stood out to other puzzlers as well. When discussing the editorial process for each Times-approved crossword, Shortz stated:

“I don’t think any other puzzle in the country goes through such rigorous editing and testing before publication.”

Now, I like Will. I do. I’ve interviewed him, and chatted with him at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament on more than one occasion. Hell, this year, I purposely lassoed him and pulled him aside so fans could grab photos with him before the tournament started AND still managed to work in a joke or two about the Crossword Mysteries movie.

But, man, there’s putting over your own product, and then there’s just stepping in it.

There are SO MANY great editors in the crossword market today. Off the top of my head, I can mention the editors at The Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher Edition, The American Values Club, The Universal Crossword, and The Crosswords Club, not to mention special projects like Women of Letters and the Indie 500, all of which provide wonderful, insightful feedback and attention to detail during the editorial process.

Sure, those puzzles might not all get the attention of ten test-solvers before publication, as Will claims each NYT crossword does. But then again, if you ignore those test solvers, as Will did in January when he used the word BEANER in a grid, that number doesn’t really matter much.

No, this isn’t always the case, obviously. Just two weeks ago, the Twitter account The Truth About Nursing praised Shortz “for allowing Howard Barkin’s description of nurses as ‘Pro caregivers, for short,’ implying expertise & autonomy. This contrasts with the 2007 clue ‘I.C.U. helper’ & the 2009 clue ‘hospital attendant’.”

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If you click through to the actual article, Howard does get the lion’s share of the thanks, as he should, given that the tweet shortchanged him a bit. But you also get more backstory on how the team at The Truth About Nursing spoke out against tone-deaf cluing regarding nurses:

Both of those clues led the Truth to protest to longtime Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. We explained to him in detail why the common misconceptions of nursing that the clues reflected were damaging, in light of the global nursing shortage and the proven influence that the media has in shaping public attitudes toward the profession… Shortz never responded directly to our concerns.

Yes, the NYT crossword gets more criticism because it is the flagship. But if you’re the flagship, you’re also supposed to set the tone, and with a track record of tone-deaf entries like ILLEGAL and HOMIE, as well as clues like “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM or “Exasperated comment from a feminist” for MEN, criticism is well-deserved.

The line between tooting your own horn and overplaying your hand is a very fine one, and undoubtedly, people are bound to disagree on which side of the fence this statement lands.

Some may say that Will deserves all the accolades and horn-tooting he wishes, given the subscriber numbers the NYT crossword garners. Others may take umbrage at Will seemingly dismissing the terrific work done by crossword editors around the country (with fewer resources, it must be said). I mean, Will himself mentored some of those editors!

I can’t speak for any of those editors, and I won’t. But, for me, as someone who has had the pleasure and privilege of meeting and getting to know so many of those creative, qualified, hardworking, and giving editors, methinks he doth toot a bit too much.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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