Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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Welcome to the World of Wordventures!

You can hear the lapping of the waves, even at a distance. A slight breeze heightens the chill in the air. The moon is already on the rise, casting long shadows that look as if they’d love nothing more than to reach out and grab you.

Night is quickly falling as you climb a hill, the last hill on your long journey. A small collection of buildings comes into view. You pass an old wooden sign that marks the town line.

Mistyvale Oaks.

A town full of strangers, distrusting souls that probably won’t take kindly to your intrusion.

A town full of secrets, a seaside port with rumors of ships both real and otherworldly haunting its shores.

A town with a horrifying history, where the laughter and playful patter of children’s feet are absent.

The children of Mistyvale Oaks have disappeared, and you’re the only one who can solve the mystery.

Welcome to the opening scenes of Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate, our newest puzzle app. This immersive story-driven puzzle-solving experience places you in the shoes of our nameless protagonist, who has followed stories of an ancient cult to this foreboding place.

Puzzles and exploration go hand-in-hand in Wordventures. As your character investigates in the story, going first from building to building, and then beyond into the mystery of Mistyvale Oaks, you search for key words in each puzzle grid, revealing small clues, new personalities, and important revelations in the narrative.

Along the way, evocative music and gorgeous artwork draw you further into the story, urging you forward as you fill your investigative journal with crucial information, other paths to explore, and the lore behind the curious objects you discover as you search.

And as you progress through the story, more supernatural elements come into play. You’ll need to rely on your wits, your puzzly skills, your investigative chops, and your trusty journal to solve the mystery!

What happened to the children of Mistyvale Oaks? What about the rumors of a ghost ship spotted nearby for years? And where does the vampire pirate of the title fit in?

Well, the only way to find out is to solve a mystery yourself! Click here to learn more about Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate and download the app now!


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The PN Blog 2018 Countdown!

It’s one of the final blog posts of the year, so what do you say we revisit all of 2017 with a countdown of my ten favorite blog posts from the past year!


But before we get to the countdown, I want to briefly mention two interesting landmarks for the blog in 2018.

In January, we were cited as a source in a college term paper, which is pretty gratifying.

And in April, we were name-dropped in a CNET article about friend of the blog Hevesh5.

Okay, enough bragging. Let’s get to the countdown!


#10 Robot Invasion

With the rise of puzzle-solving programs like Dr. Fill and game-playing AIs like AlphaGo, we’ve been joking for years about machines trying to topple humanity from the top spot as Earth’s resident puzzle-solving masters.

But this year, it kinda stopped feeling like a joke. With Scrabble-playing robots, self-solving Rubik’s Cubes, and a computer program that might’ve cracked one of the most celebrated unsolved mysteries in puzzles, the machines might just be taking over.

#9 Crossword Fun

Crosswords are still the #1 paper puzzle in the world. With more than a hundred years of creativity, cluing challenge, and cunning construction behind them, they continue to fascinate and frustrate us. And we had a lot of fun with crossword topics this year in the blog. Two of my personal favorite entries were asking questions about common crossword clues and the post where we explored the brief-lived moral panic sparked by crosswords.

#8 Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide

Every year, one of my favorite activities is putting together our Holiday Puzzly Gift Guide. I get to include the best products sent to me for review by top puzzle and game companies, mix in some of my own favorites, and draw attention to terrific constructors, game designers, and friends of the blog, all in the hopes of introducing solvers (and families of solvers) to quality puzzles and games.

#7 Unsung Heroes

They say history is written by the victors, and that’s true in the short term. But in the long term, history belongs to truth, and more and more, unsung heroes are coming to the fore and getting the well-deserved recognition denied to them earlier.

This is true in the world of puzzles as well, and this year, we had the privilege of putting the spotlight on two iconic women from puzzle history that had previously been lost to time and revisionism: codebreaking visionary Elizebeth Smith Friedman and spymaster Alexandrine, the Countess of Taxis.

#6 Citizen Shoutout

Interacting with the puzzle community is one of the highlights of doing social media for PuzzleNation. And some of the most enjoyable blog posts from this year involved focusing on members of the community and giving them kudos for their contributions to PuzzleNation and the world of puzzles in general.

As such, we created our Citizen Shoutout series to honor those folks, and along the way, we’ve thanked game shops, local escape rooms, and dedicated solvers who make the puzzle community a better place.

#5 PNVR

April Fools Day pranks are an Internet tradition at this point. Some websites go all out in celebrating the holiday. (Heck, ThinkGeek has started using the holiday to tease the public’s interest level in “fake” products, going on to actually release some of those April Fools pranks as real items later in the year!)

So after last year’s Puzzles for Pets gag was a big hit, we couldn’t resist getting in on the pranking fun again this year. The result — PNVR, a fake virtual reality puzzling experience — was as layered as it was silly, complete with fake quotes, splash pages, photos of people riding bikes while playing, and more. The visuals were amazing and hilarious.

#4 Puzzle Events

There are few things better than spending time with fellow puzzlers and gamers, and we got to do a lot of that this year. Whether it was cheering on our fellow puzzlers at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament or putting our hands dirty with some knock-down, drag-out, game-playing ferocity during our Tabletop Tournament, these interactions were both invigorating and encouraging. Events like these really help solidify the spirit of community that comes with being puzzly.

#3 International Puzzle Day Puzzle Hunt

And speaking of interacting with fellow puzzlers, for International Puzzle Day this year, we masterminded a little online puzzle hunt for PuzzleNation solvers. Involving clues hidden in both that day’s Daily POP Crosswords puzzle and Penny Dell Crosswords App free daily puzzle, solvers had to anagram and solve their way around the website in order to earn a prize. It was a serious challenge to design, and great fun to unleash on the world.

#2 Women in Crosswords and Roleplaying Games

Using the blog as an amplifier to get the word out about important causes and worthwhile projects is one of the best things about writing here. And this year in particular, we can be proud of doing our damnedest to vocalize the incredibly valuable role that women have played (and continue to play) in the puzzle/game community.

Whether it was discussing the gender disparity in published constructors in the major crossword venues or pulling back the curtain on misogynist gatekeeping in roleplaying games, we were privileged to ally ourselves with a brilliant, underappreciated contingent of the puzzle community.

#1 Wordventures

There’s nothing more exciting than getting to announce the launch of a product that has been months or years in the making, so picking #1 was a no-brainer for me. It had to be the announcement of Wordventures.

But it’s not just the app, it’s everything behind the app. I’ve watched it grow and evolve in development, and it’s truly unlike anything we’ve released before. The mix of music, imagery, storytelling, and puzzle-solving is so atmospheric and engaging.

It may sound self-serving or schlocky to talk about our flagship products as #1 in the countdown, but it’s something that we’re all extremely proud of, something that we’re constantly working to improve, because we want to make our apps the absolute best they can be for the PuzzleNation audience. That’s what you deserve.

And it’s part of the evolution of PuzzleNation and PN Blog. Even as we work to ensure our current products are the best they can be, we’re always looking ahead to what’s next, what’s on the horizon, what’s to come.

Thanks for spending 2018 with us, through robots and Rubik’s Cubes, through discoveries and daily delights, through puzzle launches and landmark moments. We’ll see you in 2019.


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PuzzleNation Blog Looks Back on 2018!

2018 is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m incredibly proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met game designers, constructors, artists, YouTubers, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and diabolical brain teasers. We pondered optical illusions, Internet memes, and more, even questioning our place in the world of puzzles as AI and solving robots continued to rise in capability.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about ancient board games from centuries ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s secret codes, and the legacy of influential female codebreakers and spymasters previously lost to revisionist history like Elizebeth Smith Friedman and the Countess Alexandrine. We brought to light valuable examples of puzzles in art, comic strips, animation, music, television, film, and popular culture.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared worthy causes like Queer Crosswords and Women of Letters, as well as amazing projects like new escape rooms, puzzle experiences like The Enigmatist, online puzzle quests, and long-running unsolved treasure hunts.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, offered up puzzly suggestions for Valentine’s Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and dove deep into an ever-expanding litany of puzzle events like the Indie 500, BosWords, and Lollapuzzoola.

We found puzzly ways to celebrate everything from Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas to Star Wars Day and the anniversary of the Crossword, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked six years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m closing in on my 1000th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2018 went well beyond that.

Every month, we delivered quality content for both the Penny Dell Crosswords App and Daily POP Crosswords. Whether it was monthly deluxe sets and holiday bundles for PDCW or the world-class topical puzzles by some of the industry’s best constructors for Daily POP, hundreds of topnotch crosswords wended their way to our loyal and enthusiastic solvers.

And a little more than a week ago, we launched our newest puzzly endeavor — Wordventures: The Vampire Pirate — bringing you a unique, story-driven puzzling experience, complete with gorgeous visuals, atmospheric music, and an immersive mystery to keep you solving!

But whether we’re talking about crosswords, Sudoku, or Wordventures, I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content crafted for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

And your response has been fantastic! Daily POP Crosswords is thriving, we’re very excited about the response to Wordventures, the blog has over 2300 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2018 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. The new year looms large, and we look forward to seeing you in 2019!


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Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Puzzly Delights!

Merry Christmas, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers! (And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, then Happy December 25th, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers!)

I’m a sucker for a festive event, so I’ve got a puzzly double feature lined up for you today.

First, allow me to present a delightful video concocted by friend of the blog Hevesh5. Lily is a domino master who has created numerous domino chains and Rube Goldberg-style machines with elements that fit a given theme. So naturally, given the season, she’s devised a marvelous domino chain with all sorts of holiday elements. Enjoy!

And since we’re on a holiday kick, there’s an anagram challenge for you too!

What are the longest common words you can make from the letters in the following phrase?

M-E-R-R-Y C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S

No plurals or proper nouns are allowed, and you can only use the letters in the phrase. (Meaning, for instance, you can use 3 Rs, but not 4, since there are only 3 in the phrase.)

We came up with one 10-letter word, four 9-letter words, twelve 8-letter words, and thirty 7-letter words.

Let’s see how you do!

Have a marvelous holiday (or day), and happy puzzling to you!


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Jigsaw Puzzle Art Leads to Curious Creations!

If there’s one thing that puzzle fans of all shapes and sizes excel at, it’s pattern recognition. Whether it’s patterns of letters, patterns of numbers, patterns of logical facts, or patterns of puzzle pieces, puzzlers are outstanding at drawing order from chaos.

So it should come as no surprise that avid jigsaw puzzle solvers have noticed that some jigsaw puzzle companies use the same cutting molds over and over to create their jigsaw puzzles.

I myself realized this fact when I was younger. I was given three small Star Wars jigsaw puzzles, and all three of them were cut from the same mold. So once I’d solved one, solving the other two went much much faster. (I actually stacked them to make it even easier to complete the second and third puzzles.)

Naturally, this has led certain attentive and intrepid puzzlers to track down different puzzles with the same cutting mold to see how the two puzzles interact.

Artist Tim Klein is one of those observant individuals, and he’s had a lot of fun over the years crafting peculiar images by combining jigsaws with compatible molds:

Jigsaw puzzle companies tend to use the same cut patterns for multiple puzzles. This makes the pieces interchangeable. As a result, I sometimes find that I can combine portions from two or more puzzles to make a surreal picture that the publisher never imagined.

I take great pleasure in “discovering” such bizarre images lying latent, sometimes for decades, within the pieces of ordinary mass-produced puzzles. As I shift the pieces back and forth, trying different combinations, I feel like an archaeologist unearthing a hidden artifact.

And today, we’ve collected some of his puzzly creations for your enjoyment.


This mixture of summer and winter is marvelously balanced, particularly with the summer and winter bridges matching up so perfectly.

This fusion of a church and fairground adds a fun touch to an otherwise quiet and dignified image.

I like to call this one the Earth Mooover.

The Iron Horse comes to life in this surreal mashup.

In a natural evolution, this dinosaur train is no doubt the apex predator of the animal-train hybrid food pyramid.

This dinosaur/bunny monstrosity is a cuddly little ball of viciousness. No train parts needed.

Mixing up elements of three different puzzles brings us this Victorian ladypuppy in front of a scenic waterfall. This is dream or nightmare fuel, depending on your perspective.

This mixture of crosswords and fishing is wonderfully executed, offering the pleasantly appropriate metaphorical representation of “fishing for answers.”

And to close out this compilation of Klein’s jigsaw art, it seemed only appropriate to end on a holiday-themed note, with this kitty-in-kitty-in-present melange.


Klein’s jigsaw creations are as eye-catching as they are puzzling, and it makes you wonder what other hybrid constructions are awaiting the eagle eye of a devoted jigsaw puzzler.

[Images and quotation courtesy of Awkward.com and Twisted Sifter.]


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