Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords


Last summer, I wrote a blog post discussing an article on Slate by Ruth Graham. The article was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?”

So, what sort of progress has been made over the previous 365 days? Clearly not enough, given the title of an article published last week on The Outline, entitled “The NYT Crossword is Old and Kind of Racist.”

Adrianne Jeffries makes a strong case for how out-of-touch the crossword often seems these days:

…the Times crosswords, which have been edited by the famed crossword giant Will Shortz since 1993, are vexing for how outdated some of the clues and answers are, especially since in some cases the terms have been abandoned by the paper itself. The puzzle clearly isn’t seeking new talent or a new audience, and in its stodginess, it becomes clear that it is composed for a very particular reader with a very particular view of the world.


[Image courtesy of New York Magazine.]

She backs up her supposition with numerous examples of tone-deaf cluing and grid fill, like ESKIMO, Oriental, and SISSIES.

There is some overlap with Ruth Graham’s points from last year — including the reductive use of HOMIE regarding black culture and the clue “One caught by the border patrol” for ILLEGAL — and Jeffries went on to include examples of the issue I raised last year with the objectionable “This, to Juan” cluing style that abounds in crosswords.

But she takes things one step further than previous efforts by pointing out how the crossword is out-of-step with the rest of the New York Times newspaper, citing the year that various terms were marked offensive in the Times style guide. (“Oriental” as a descriptor, for instance, was banned in 1999.)


[This is oriental. People are not. Image courtesy of Rashid Oriental Rugs.]

It’s disheartening that articles like this are so necessary. Women and people of color deserve better representation in the Times puzzles, both as contributors of puzzles AND as subjects of clues and entries themselves.

Jeffries offered another damning example of dubious Shortzian editing:

I also found an exchange from 2011 illuminating. Shortz asked puzzle constructor Elizabeth Gorski to change an answer on her submitted puzzle. “There was one thing about the construction I didn’t like, and that was at 35 Down,” Shortz told The Atlantic. “The answer was LORELAI, and the sirens on the Rhine are of course ‘Lorelei,’ with an ‘e-i.’ Liz’s clue was Rory’s mom on Gilmore Girls, and I didn’t think solvers should have to know that.” He had the constructor revise the answer to make it 1) more old and 2) refer to mythical women who are so distractingly beautiful that they cause men to crash their ships on the rocks, instead of, a cool mom from a television show that millions of women (and some men) love.


[Image courtesy of The Odyssey Online.]

Even as a (relatively) younger voice in puzzles, I can’t deny many of her points. Puzzles should do a better job of acknowledging modern culture, of serving as a tiny, daily time capsule of our world.

As I said last year, crosswords are a cultural microcosm, representing the commonalities and peculiarities of our language in a given time and place. They represent our trivia, our understanding, our cleverness, our humor, and, yes, sometimes our shortcomings.

One year later, I wonder if progress will continue to feel so gradual, or if, sometime soon, we’ll begin to feel the cultural quakes and shifts that indicate real change is approaching.

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Puzzles in Pop Culture: Two Hollows

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we visit two very different New England towns — Stars Hollow, Connecticut, and Sleepy Hollow, New York — in two very different TV shows.

Stars Hollow is the fictional setting of cancelled WB/CW drama Gilmore Girls, which spent seven seasons following the pop culture-fueled banter of mother/daughter team Lorelai and Rory Gilmore as they navigated relationships, family drama, and all the undeniable quirkiness of small-town America.

Sleepy Hollow is a very real town, but hopefully one unafflicted by headless horsemen, demonic plots, and a secret war against evil that’s been waged since the days of the American Revolution. At least that’s what’s going on in the fictional version of Sleepy Hollow in Fox’s eponymous TV show, now in its second season.

And, as it turns out, each has something interesting to say about crossword puzzles.

First, there’s this brief scene from Gilmore Girls, where Lorelai ponders both the challenge of crosswords and the social implications of NOT being a crossword solver:

Clearly Lorelai and Rory are crossword skeptics, or at the very least, indifferent to crosswords. But given that they’re staring at a collection of New York Times crossword puzzles, maybe they’re simply disillusioned after a few hard end-of-the-week puzzles.

The character of Henry Parrish from Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, has much kinder things to say about crosswords.

He expressed himself quite eloquently in episode 10 of season 1, “The Golem.”

Lt. Abbie Mills: You doing crosswords?

Henry Parrish: As I said, it distracts me from my troubles. A good puzzle misleads you, it sends you in one direction, fools you into thinking you know what’s going on. But once you discover the trick, you see that’s there’s often a hidden meaning.

Now, there’s a man who has solved some quality crosswords in his time. Maybe he could recommend a few choice ones for the Gilmore girls.

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