Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Puzzly Mystery of the Astronaut of Casar

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[Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura.]

What is it about a secret message from decades or even centuries ago that intrigues us so?

Last year around this time, we chronicled the stories behind three stones in the United States inscribed with unidentified runes or letters that have defied attempts to solve them.

stele casar

Today, we add to that list of strange stones bearing the secret words of the past as we discuss the Astronaut of Casar.

The Astronaut of Casar, also known as the Alien of Casar or simply the Casar stele, is a stone slab that supposedly dates back to Roman times, if not earlier. It was originally embedded in the wall of a cemetery in a village in Spain known as Casar.

stele casar 4

[One theoretical interpretation.]

The inscription carved into the body of the illustrated figure consists of Latin characters, but the language appears to be something Indo-European. Possible languages include Lusitanian, Tartessian, and an early form of Basque.

The identity of the figure depicted on the stele is the subject of great debate. Some observers believe is a Celtiberian warrior from the 1st or 2nd century B.C. (The Celtiberians were Celts that lived on the Iberian peninsula in the last centuries B.C.)

stele casar 2

But, of course, the name indicates another theory regarding the identity of the figure on the stele. Some observers believe it’s meant to be an astronaut or an alien, a visitor from another planet. (The large head represents either a space helmet or the disproportionate head of an alien being, you see.)

Yes, I knew if we kept discussing mysterious stones, we would eventually have to talk about aliens at some point!

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Those who ascribe to the alien astronaut theory believe the stele is a message of gratitude from the alien, a thank you for the hospitality of a Casar family who welcomed it for a season while it stayed or was stuck on Earth.

To be fair, I think that’s a reach. There are plenty of examples of figures drawn or carved with oversized heads in art and archaeological history, so we don’t immediately need to look to the stars for answers.

stele casar 3

But if you want to look for answers, instead of the cemetery wall in Casar, the Astronaut of Casar can be found in the Archaeological Museum of Cáceres, Spain.

What do you think the stone says, fellow puzzlers? Is it just a strange funeral marker, or something more otherworldly? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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What’s Your Favorite Puzzly Place?

We talk about puzzly things all time. We discuss puzzly moments from history, puzzly events happening now, and the many ways puzzles are represented in modern life, both obviously and less so.

But it recently occurred to me that we rarely talk about puzzly places.

There are escape rooms and board game cafes, puzzle hunts that span cities and college campuses, corn mazes lovingly cultivated every year, and geocaches with puzzly elements awaiting intrepid hikers and nature lovers.

If you picture “puzzly place” in your mind, what do you see? The Labyrinth from Greek mythology? The Winchester Mystery House? The Hampton Court Maze?

Oddly enough, the first place that comes to mind for me is a woodland area in England, famed for its strange rock formations, caves, and trees.

It’s known as Puzzlewood.

This 14-acre space, located in the forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, is one of the most gorgeous and peculiar places in the world. It is full of meandering pathways, old mining areas dating back to the Roman era, and cave systems that breached the surface untold years ago. There are bridges and rock formations, many covered in the moss that has conquered any sign of human intervention there.

It reportedly inspired not just the Forbidden Forest from the Harry Potter series, but several locations in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as well. It has been a filming site for shows like Doctor Who and Merlin as well as franchises like the Star Wars saga.

And it seems like a beautifully peaceful place for some puzzling.

It may not possess the order or intrigue of some of the world’s most famous hedge mazes, but in my estimation, what it lacks in design, it more than makes up for with atmosphere.

Puzzlewood truly lives up to the name.

What are your favorite puzzly places, fellow solvers? Do you have a favorite escape room, maze, or natural spot in which to get lost? Or is your puzzly place right at home with a puzzle book and some cocoa? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Go Go Letter Power Rangers: A Puzzly Theme Song Contest!

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Every month, we play some sort of game with not only our fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, but with our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles as well.

Often, this takes the form of a hashtag game, mashing up the topic of the month with entries to Penny Press and Dell Magazines puzzles, titles, and so on.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, they’re punny costume ideas, or puzzly opening lines for novels, or attractions for a puzzle-fueled zoo!

This time around, we had a different challenge in mind: coming up with a puzzle-infused theme song for Penny Dell Puzzles!

And friends, they certainly did not disappoint.

So, without further ado, check out what these puzzlers came up with!


We start off today’s collection with some punny takes on classic TV theme songs!

I’ll Be Here & There For You

Love Is All Around the Block

Welcome Back, Kakuro

Where Everybody Knows Your Crypto-Names

Keep It Movin’ On Up / Movin’ On Ups and Downs

There’s No Places, Please Like Home

Split & Splice is Painless

Tossing & Turning and Scrambled Up

Three from Nine to Five

We’re the Chipsmunks

Nothing’s Gonna Stoplines Me Now


From this point forward, it’s not just titles, it’s puzzly lyrics as well!

Check out this brief yet delightful entry, to the tune of Britney Spears:

Oops I did it again
I wrote with a pen, got lost in the grid
Oh Penny, Penny
Oops you think I’m so lost
Switched Down with Across
I need a-nother hint


One intrepid puzzler pitched a nostalgic look at the puzzly past. This one is to the tune of “Those Were The Days” from “All In The Family.”

Boy, the way Word Seeks are made
The clever way that Tiles are laid
Solvers like us, we got it made
These are Word Games
And you know Say That Again
Even do ’em with a pen
Cryptograms can be done, even a page of KenKen
You don’t need no calculator
When you solve your Sudoku later
Gee, all our Fill-Ins look greater
These are Word Games!


I’ll let our next contributor handle their own introduction. Take it away, fellow puzzler!

You want a theme song?
Hold onto your wimple, Maria!
I’ve got your theme song right here:

♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪
How do you solve a puzzle like a crossword?
How do you fill a grid, across and down?
What’s a five-letter word that means “an earth tone”?
An ochre? An umber? A camel? A beige? A brown?

Many a thing you know you’d like to write there,
Many a clue you ought to understand.
A book that can make you think:
Use pencil or pen and ink!
How do you choose the best from your newsstand?

Oh, how do know you’ve got the tops in puzzles?
Penny Press made the book that’s in your hand!
♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪♫♪


Another marvelous entry was set to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and is known simply as… the Solver’s Theme:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final clue
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll take my prize, of which I’m due
I’ve solved the puzzles full
Fraught with joy and dismay
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
I penned each solve complete
Each careful letter along the way
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

Yes, there were times, that Crypto-Zoo
When I bit off more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and finished Turnabout
I faced it all, and I stood tall
And did it my way

I’ve circled, I’ve erased and cried
I’ve had my Fill-Ins, Tossing and Turning
And now, as tears subside
I find that I am always learning
To think I did all that
And may I say, not in a shy way
Oh, no, oh, no, not me
I did it my way

For what is a solver, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say he finished Spinwheel
But sought help for Square Deal
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way

Yes, it was my way


Here’s a toe-tapping puzzly entry submitted to the tune of “867-5309”:

Penny, Penny has puzzles for you
Our magazines have a ton of fun clues
Sudoku, Word Seeks, and Crosswords galore
Your favorite puzzles, oh we’ve got them all!

Penny, you’ve got our number
When you need Three from Nine
Penny, just call our number

Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight

Penny, Penny has Puzzle Derby
Fill-Ins and Places, Please will make you so happy
Try out Double Trouble or Blockbuilders
Challenge your imagination with Exploraword

Penny, you’ve got our number
When you need Diamond Mine
Penny, just call our number

Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight
Eight, six, six, six, six, eight, eight

We’ve got it (We’ve got it) We’ve got it
Tiles, Place Your Number, and Quotefalls
We’ve got it (We’ve got it) We’ve got it
For a Good Time, for a Good Time call!


As a closer, here’s one the kids can enjoy, as one creative puzzler submitted a piece to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm”:

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a COLORING BOOK here
and a COLORING BOOK there,
here a COLORING BOOK
there a COLORING BOOK
everywhere you see a COLORING BOOK

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a CROSSWORD here
and a CROSSWORD there,
here a CROSSWORD
there a CROSSWORD
everywhere you see a CROSSWORD

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a FILL-IN here
and a FILL-IN there,
here a FILL-IN
there a FILL-IN
everywhere you see a FILL-IN,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a LOGIC here
and a LOGIC there,
here a LOGIC
there a LOGIC
everywhere you see a LOGIC,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a VARIETY here
and a VARIETY there,
here a VARIETY
there a VARIETY
everywhere you see a VARIETY,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a WORD SEEK here
and a WORD SEEK there,
here a WORD SEEK
there a WORD SEEK
everywhere you see a WORD SEEK,

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one
With a WORD SEEK here
and a WORD SEEK there,
here a WORD SEEK
there a WORD SEEK
everywhere you see a WORD SEEK,

a VARIETY here
and a VARIETY there,
here a VARIETY
there a VARIETY
everywhere you see a VARIETY,

a LOGIC here
and a LOGIC there,
here a LOGIC
there a LOGIC
everywhere you see a LOGIC,

a FILL-IN here
and a FILL-IN there,
here a FILL-IN,
there a FILL-IN
everywhere you see a FILL-IN,

a CROSSWORD here
and a CROSSWORD there,
here a CROSSWORD,
there a CROSSWORD
everywhere you see a CROSSWORD,

a COLORING BOOK here
and a COLORING BOOK there,
here a COLORING BOOK
there a COLORING BOOK
everywhere you see a COLORING BOOK …

Penny Pub makes puzzles fun,
oh lets go do one


Did you have a favorite Penny Dell Puzzly Theme Song, fellow puzzlers? Or an idea of your own? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!

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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.)

farrar

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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