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.


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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.”


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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.)


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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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Crimes Against Crosswords!

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[Image courtesy of Goodreads.]

I know what you’re thinking. “Crimes against crosswords? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?”

Sure it is. You might think it’s over the top to shudder every time someone promises a crossword but publishes a crisscross instead.

But it’s true. There are numerous ways people can transgress against the noble crossword, harming both the body and the spirit of the crossword itself.

For instance, check out this picture of a crossword from The Los Angeles Times,  republished in a local newspaper, which was shared on reddit:

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Look at it! They cropped all four sides of the puzzle in order to fit the available space. Good luck figuring out which across word is clued by “mesake of a ed ratio” or one of the many other mangled clues along the left-hand side of the puzzle.

That is a crime against crosswords.

They’re not always so obvious and clumsy, though.

No, sometimes, a crossword is harmed by crummy fill or an abundance of nonsense abbreviations or numerous Naticks formed by crossing obscure words with other obscure words.

Granted, these are far rarer in the major outlets. (Unless you’re checking out r/crossword or reading Rex Parker’s blog, where they find so-called crossword indignities by the dozens. Good lord.)

But in reality, the vast majority of crossword venues won’t publish puzzles so undermined by careless choices.

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Yeah, you noticed I didn’t say “all crossword venues.”

This unfortunate grid was published by Vox, but it was later deleted, as reported on Twitter by constructor Evan Birnholz:

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Evan is an avid follower of the Vox crossword, but not because he’s a fan. No, Evan has been dunking on the Vox crossword for what feels like forever. He’s not doing it to make his own puzzles look better by comparison; as a top-flight constructor, he doesn’t need to.

His criticisms are never unfair or mean-spirited; on the contrary, they’re founded in trying to make the puzzle better by pointing out poor choices.

They’re also founded in defending the work of fellow constructors. Evan’s keen eye has caught more than a few questionable examples of clues that seem to have been pilfered wholesale or altered slightly by Vox constructors.

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Now, the first puzzle I posted was silly. Sure, it made the crossword nigh-unsolvable, but there’s no malice there. The second puzzle, the one with the unpleasant pattern, doesn’t deserve the same benefit of the doubt. It was a poor choice, and a puzzle that never should have made it to solvers.

But as for stolen clues, that’s something else entirely. If that’s what is happening here — and Evan makes a fairly compelling case — that’s not just a crime against crosswords, it’s a crime against fellow constructors. It’s a sign of disrespect.

I love shouting out smart clues by constructors, not only so other people can enjoy the wit and wordplay, but so that the right person gets the proper credit. The crossword community is a brilliant group of people; they’re clever and hardworking and constantly innovating.

And it sucks to see some members of the community take advantage of others. It hurts the community as a whole, far more than any bad cropping of a puzzle ever could.


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The Decade in 10 Words?

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[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

For the last few weeks, we’ve all been awash in lists. Whether it’s covering the year or the decade, there are Best Of, Worst Of, Most Influential, Most Scandalous, Most Underrated, Most Overrated, and many many more.

Heck, we’ve had a bit of fun with year-end lists ourselves in the last week, though we tried not to overdo it.

Smithsonian Magazine even got in on the trend with a recent article. They summarized the 2010s through ten words that made their debut in The New York Times crossword this decade.

It’s an intriguing hook for a list, offering context and brief histories for words like MEME, SEXT, TWEET, BARISTA, and LGBT while discussing their greater social and cultural impact.

Sadly, there were a few times that I felt like the article came up short when representing both crosswords and the puzzle audience in general.

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[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

I mean, come on. LOL? Yes, the entry appeared a staggering 48 times during the decade, but it’s been around since the ’90s! This was like IPOD finally making it into crossword grids just in time for iPods to not be a thing anymore. (Thankfully, IPADS salvaged some of those grids.)

They would have been better off including BAE, which is not only more modern (making the first of 10 NYT appearances in 2017), but feels significantly less eyeroll-worthy in this day and age.

I was also less-than-impressed by this statement, which accompanied the entry N.L. EAST:

“Jeopardy!” contestants are notorious for their aversion to sports, a weakness shared by many members of the cruciverbal clique. As it turns out, sports are a big part of American cultural life and have been for quite some while…

This is an embarrassing, reductive cliche that feels straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. There are plenty of sports-savvy constructors and solvers (which explains how N.L. EAST and A.L. EAST ended up in the Times crossword twenty times in total).

The idea that crosswords and sports are mutually exclusive domains isn’t just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

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I don’t mean for this post to feel like a takedown of the Smithsonian Magazine piece, because for the most part, it was a breezy examination of the decade through the lens of crosswords.

I appreciated the spotlight put on clues for the entries LGBT/LGBTQ, though perhaps a more illuminating glimpse into growing representation of the LGBTQIA+ community would have been mentioning Ben Tausig’s quantum puzzle from September of 2016, which introduced the entry GENDERFLUID to the Times crossword.

Although the entry itself has only appeared twice in the Times thus far, its inclusion in Tausig’s puzzle was noteworthy because it not only introduced the word to new eyes, but deftly explained the idea itself through its theme.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in a grid square and still fit the definition, a la FIRE/MIRE — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female.

To have a puzzle not only debut an important new word, but to provide such valuable context for it in a clever, kind, fun mechanic represents not just where crosswords as a whole are going, but how they can help push us in a better direction in a unique way.

That feels like a more worthwhile note to conclude the decade on than 48 LOLs.


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Puzzly New Year’s Resolutions

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[Image courtesy of Dayfinders.]

It’s a new year, and with a new year comes new resolutions and goals, born from the welcome idea that the slate has been wiped clean and the next 365 days are full of possibilities.

That’s as true for puzzle solvers and constructors as it is for anyone else. On Twitter, I’ve seen puzzlers resolving to tackle every NYT crossword, or the daily Sudoku, or simply the jigsaw puzzles in their closets.

The folks over at the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory (which is closing in on its two-year anniversary, by the way!) have also been sharing their puzzly resolutions. Writing clues faster, finishing crosswords or getting them submitted, improving the quality of their grid fill, publishing a cryptic or a themeless, and submitting to new editors or outlets were among the many worthwhile resolutions proposed.

There were also some marvelously open-minded suggestions, like employing proper Chinese PinYin to spell Lao-Tzu/Lao-Tze “Lao Zi,” or pushing for entries like NAAN, ROTI, DAL, and others to be considered acceptable fill, not crosswordese.

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And as you might expect, I have a few puzzly resolutions of my own.

In the coming year, I resolve to:

  • get through the backlog of puzzles that has slowly accumulated over the past year
  • keep track of the number of puzzles I solve each month
  • organize my voluminous library of puzzle books
  • (and complete the unfinished ones)
  • (and probably donate a bunch of the ones I haven’t touched)

Have you made any puzzly resolutions, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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