The Future of Crosswords: Multilingual Grids?

[Image courtesy of Seton.]

Anyone familiar with crosswords these days knows that you need more than a thorough knowledge of English to be a topnotch solver these days.

Sure, English is still the basis for the vast majority of crosswords you’ll encounter — even if some weird, unexpected, and obscure words pop in from time to time — but you’ll need a grasp of other languages to complete most grids these days. (And I’m not just talking about European rivers or foreign currencies.)

After all, the Greek alphabet shows up in crosswords all the time. I can’t recall the last grid I completed that didn’t have ETA, IOTA, RHO, or PHI in it. And clues like “Fraternity letter” are rarely specific enough to help you fill the clue on your first try.

[Image courtesy of Greek Boston.]

You need to know your Latin to solve puzzles too. ET TU, AD HOC, DIES IRAE… plenty of words and phrases pilfered from Latin litter crossword grids.

The modern crossword will send you on a linguistic tour of the globe. From “Scottish Gaelic” for ERSE and “Indian nanny” for AMAH to “Kimono sash” for OBI and “German mister” for HERR, you could visit the languages of half a dozen countries in a single crossword.

But if you’re talking about other languages in crosswords, the top two are undoubtedly Spanish and French.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Spanish and French words are so common that Wordplay, the blog dedicated to The New York Times crossword, has entire articles dedicated to Spanish and French words you need to know.

For Spanish, they list entries like BESO for “kiss,” ESTA for “this,” and RIATA for “rope.” (Though they missed TIO/TIA for “uncle/aunt” in their rundown.)

On the French side of things, you get common crossword entries like AMI for “friend,” ROI for “king,” or SEL for “salt.”

(The crew at Crossword Unclued even wrote an article about how often French words are used in Cryptic-style cluing, for fans of that version of crosswording.)

[No, something a little tougher than that. Image courtesy of Mommy Maestra.]

All this multilingual puzzling made me wonder… has anyone tried to create a bilingual crossword? I’m talking about a crossword where a significant portion of the entries (if not half) are from a second language.

As it turns out, constructor Bryan Betancur recently accepted that challenge, creating “Bilingual Puzzle #1.” This puzzle not only features a fair number of Spanish words in the grid — not as filler but as significant entries (which I won’t mention, in case you want to solve it yourself!) — but many of the clues for Spanish AND English words are written in Spanish, ensuring a mental challenge beyond the usual crossword fare.

Yes, it was a confusing solve not to know whether the answer to a given clue would be English or Spanish, but that made it all the more satisfying when I was able to confidentally place words in the grid.

It’s the only crossword on the WordPress Blog “Bilingual Crossword,” but here’s hoping others join it soon.

In the cultural melting pot that is modern society, there’s not only opportunity for inclusivity, but there’s also opportunity for challenging, bilingual crossword grids to pique your interest (and make you wish you’d paid more attention in high school foreign language classes).


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords

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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.

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[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.)

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[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.

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[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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1 word, 3 letters, a world of possibilities

As I was writing Tuesday’s post and returning to the world of crossword-inspired art, it made me wonder what other puzzly works are out there, waiting to be discovered, appreciated, and perhaps mistakenly filled in.

So I did a little digging, a little Googling, and a little research, and I thought I’d introduce you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, to some of the crossword-infused works of art I discovered.

So, without further ado or hullabaloo, let’s get to it!


This work from 2005, entitled “I Can’t Read,” is a collage of crossword and newsprint, and although I discovered it on Crossword City, it was originally posted on the DeviantArt account of content creator PrairiePunk.

This Untitled piece by artist Juliet A is just one of several crossword-inspired pieces I found on the website Milliande.com. They featured themed weeks for posts, and “crossword puzzles” apparently provided plenty of inspiration for several impressive, engaging creations.

This wonderful bit of crossword-fueled street art, discovered in Ghent, Belgium, was posted on Pinterest.

Inspired by the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, as well as the Saskatoon art scene itself, this work by Megan Mormon was developed for partygoers to play with and solve (with post-its provided). The clues and entries are all geared toward local art.

My personal favorite was this piece by Tony Blue, entitled Crosswords 2, a work of mixed media on canvas.

Puzzles meet performance in this sketch by Emily Jo Cureton, based on key words from the May 16, 2008, New York Times crossword.

Crosswords have even found their way into the world of nail art, as typified by this design by Hannah Rox Nails, created for Girls’ Life. [Note: the link leads to a YouTube page.]

I’ll close out today’s gallery with this intriguing piece of interactive crossword puzzle art, created by Gary Hill. The ever-shifting view of the grid only allows you to examine small portions at once, leaving you curiously adrift as you solve along with the artist.


This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crossword-inspired art. A quick Google search or targeted Pinterest hunt will reveal many more.

For a few more pieces of crossword art, complete with commentary from the artists themselves, check out this article from CrosswordUnclued.com.


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Sudoku Around the World!

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Sudoku is the most popular pen-and-paper puzzle since the crossword. No other puzzles come close. Whether it’s in your local paper, our iPad app, or one of the magazines offered by our friends at Penny/Dell Puzzles, chances are you’ve solved a Sudoku puzzle at one time or another.

And the solving experience is an integral part of its success. When you look at a Sudoku grid, you instinctively know what sort of puzzle you’re dealing with and what the goal is. You don’t need the instructions or any elaborate explanations. You can simply dive right in.

That sort of simplicity and accessibility gives Sudoku major appeal, and has contributed to its success as an iconic puzzle worldwide.

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Look at this stack of puzzle books from around the world, loaned to me by a friend of the blog!

There are Sudoku books in Russian, French, Japanese, and other languages! And yet, you could pick up any one of these magazines and start solving immediately.

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Here are two Samurai Sudoku from a Russian puzzle magazine. Again, these are identical to the overlapping grids you find in the States.

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I did, however, encounter a few intriguing variations I was unfamiliar with as I perused these magazines published by 777.

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Instead of providing sums in smaller boxes within the grid like Sum-Doku puzzles, or along the edges like Kakuro, these puzzles offer totals that correspond to the three diagonal boxes in a line a given arrow points to.

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In this Sudoku variant, there are no repeats of the numbers 1 through 8 in a given row or column, but there are also no repeats within each group of connected circles.

Again, although I couldn’t read the instructions for these new puzzles, I was easily able to figure out the mechanics of each and start solving within a few minutes. Very few puzzles have that sort of universal accessibility.

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While I’m very familiar with Kakuro (or Cross Sums) puzzles, I’ve never encountered cut-style grids like these. I just love the simple elegance of these diamond-shaped grids. Very eye-catching.

Believe it or not, this is just a sampling of the hundreds and hundreds of Sudoku magazines and puzzle books released over the last decade.

Although the puzzle as we know it has been around since the ’70s under other names (To the Nines and Number Place, among them), it was only relatively recently that it exploded in popularity, becoming a true cultural touchstone and undeniable puzzle phenomenon.

[For another blog post exploring puzzle books from around the world, click here!]

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