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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View a Clue: Crossword Characters Answers!

A few weeks ago, we brought back one of our trickiest recurring features: the View a Clue game!

If you recall, I selected ten fictional characters that commonly show up in crossword grids — some have become crosswordese at this point — to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s give it a shot!


#1 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Heroes and Villains Fandom.]

Answer: ODIE, loyal and drooly companion of Garfield and his owner Jon Arbuckle


#2 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Answer: ASTA, beloved dog of film detectives Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man series


#3 (3 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Redbubble.]

Answer: REN, from Nickelodeon’s Ren & Stimpy


#4 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Disney Fandom.]

Answer: SMEE, Captain Hook’s right-hand man from the Peter Pan stories


#5 (4 letters) [I’ve included two possible characters for this one.]

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[Images courtesy of E! Online and Wikipedia.]

Answer: ELSA


#6 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Hulu.]

Answer: EYRE, more specifically Jane Eyre


#7 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

Answer: IGOR, the assistant of Dr. Frankenstein


#8 (5 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Soap Central.]

Answer: ERICA, more specifically Erica Kane of All My Children


#9 (4 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Getty Images.]

Answer: AHAB, Captain of the Pequod from Moby-Dick


#10 (3 letters)

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[Image courtesy of Warner Bros.]

Answer: RIN, as in Rin Tin Tin, the famous Hollywood dog


How many did you get? Let me know in the comments below! And if you have ideas for another View a Clue game, tell us below!

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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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Crossword Competitions: Cancelled!

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Originally, today’s post was going to be about the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition happening this weekend.

I was going to wish the participants good luck and talk about crossword tournament protocol and advice.

But that’s all been rendered moot, as the Eighth Annual Finger Lakes Crossword Competition has been cancelled due to concerns surrounding gatherings of people during the ongoing Coronavirus situation.

And unfortunately, it’s not the only upcoming puzzly event that has been scuppered by preventative health measures.

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Alas, the 43rd edition of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has also been cancelled for health-related reasons.

Although Will Shortz is in discussion with the hotel and event organizers regarding potentially moving the tournament to later in the year, for now, ACPT won’t be happening.

I’m disappointed, of course, but I’m not at all surprised. With schools and libraries closing their doors for the time being, not to mention sporting events potentially being held in empty arenas, all sorts of gatherings are being cancelled or rethought in order to keep folks safe.

We here at PuzzleNation hope you and your loved ones are happy, healthy, and taking steps to stay that way.

Be well, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. (And in the meantime, now you’ve got more time to practice your puzzly skills for the tournament’s talent show.)


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Daily POP Word Search Is Here!

Friends and fellow PuzzleNationers, it’s our pleasure and our privilege to introduce you to the newest puzzle app to join our family of world-class mobile puzzling experiences!

Yes, it’s here! The latest innovation in word seek-style solving, Daily POP Word Search is now available!

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Available for both iOS and Android users, Daily POP Word Search puts all the fun of word-hunting puzzles at your fingertips… literally! Just drag your finger along each hidden word to highlight it and cross it off your list!

That’s right, no need to tote around a magazine and a pen or pencil to solve your favorite puzzles! You can do it all right from your phone with Daily POP Word Search!

And just like Daily POP Crosswords, you can expect up-to-date themes, entries, and topics! You won’t be hunting down silent film stars, you’ll be looking for entries for the music, TV, film, literary, and pop culture properties you enjoy today!

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We’re talking about free themed daily word search puzzles right in your pocket every day! Each day has a different pop culture theme, running the gamut from music and movies to sports and history, so no matter what piques your interest, the app is guaranteed to have puzzles for you!

Yes, we did use the magic word. Daily POP Word Search is FREE to download and FREE to play!

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With our responsive word-looping, cutting edge themes, and all sorts of ways to keep track of your solving progress — including optional timed solves, calendars with delightful emojis for each day’s puzzle, and more! — word search solving has never been this fun or this interactive! And it’s ready for you to enjoy right now!

Your search for the next great puzzle app is over! You can’t go wrong with PuzzleNation, and Daily POP Word Search is our best yet!


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Farewell, Rip Torn, Star of Stage, Screen, and Crossword Grids

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[Image courtesy of Page Six.]

It is always a sad day when the puzzle community loses one of their own, no matter how rare those events are. It’s rarer still to say goodbye to someone whose contributions were made by appearing IN grids, rather than by constructing or cluing them.

Alas, it is one of those rare times, as this week we mourn the loss of crossword icon and Hollywood actor Rip Torn.

Rip was famously aware of his status as a go-to crossword entry. When he was asked if his name had given him anything but grief over the years, he replied, “Well, when I couldn’t get a job, everybody would say, ‘Where do I know you from?’ I said, ‘Crossword puzzles!’ That kept my name alive for years.”

And it’s true. Some names are simply crossword friendly and have shown up regularly over the years, transforming from pop culture reference to fully accepted part of the crosswordese lexicon.

Although we lost Una and Ona and more than one Ida over the years, Rip hung around amongst stalwart compatriots like Ono and Eno and Esai.

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[Image courtesy of The Chive.]

An actor known for both his stubbornness and the realism he brought to his performances, Rip essentially had two careers in Hollywood. He was a serious dramatic performer throughout the 1960s, until his reputation for being difficult to work with led to a dry spell in the 1970s. (This reputation was famously cemented when he lost the role later played by Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider.)

He would later enjoy a career renaissance in the mid-1990s and beyond for his considerable comedic talents, leaving behind memorable performances in the Men in Black films, and perhaps most notably, HBO’s meta talk show comedy The Larry Sanders Show. Personally, I always enjoyed Rip as the gruff but entertaining mentor figure, which made his appearances in Dodgeball and 30 Rock a particular delight.

For his talents, his humor, his honesty, and that inimitable arrangement of letters that made him oh-so-crossword-convenient, he will be missed.


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