Identity and Gender in The New York Times Crossword

[Image courtesy of the Odyssey Online.]

Only two months ago, I wrote a blog post about a Slate article discussing how The New York Times crossword can be socially tone-deaf at times. So it’s heartening today to write about a New York Times crossword puzzle that’s progressive, one that is bringing the conversation forward instead of feeling out-of-touch.

On Thursday, September 1, the paper published a crossword by constructor Ben Tausig. Even on the surface, this was a rare puzzle, because it allows for multiple entries that fit a given definition. These puzzles are known as Quantum puzzles or Schrödinger puzzles.

The most famous example is the 1996 Election Day crossword pictured below, which “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

In Ben Tausig’s puzzle, there are four across entries and four down entries that each allow for two possible answers. For instance, 67 Across is clued “Tough stuff to walk through” and the answer can be FIRE or MIRE. That entry crosses 60 Down, which is clued “Word that can precede sex,” allowing for the answers SAME or SAFE.

What separates Tausig’s puzzle from this elite group of masterfully constructed Quantum crosswords is what it represents on a social inclusiveness level.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in the box and still fit the definition — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female. Having GENDER FLUID as the revealer entry helps demystify both the theme and the topic at hand for solvers.

[Click here to see a larger version of the grid.]

As constructor Ben Tausig says in his XwordInfo write-up of the puzzle:

The theme letters don’t move from M to F or from F to M, in the manner of a binary, but float in an unresolved place in between. That’s a simple but reasonable way of representing queer sexuality — as a forever-exploration of identity and desire.

And although those two concepts only scratch the surface of the rich panoply of emerging terms and definitions with which people can express their gender or identity, this is an excellent step forward.

Kudos to Tausig and the crew at The New York Times crossword for a puzzle that’s elegant and inclusive in more ways than one.


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A Quantum Leap Forward in Crosswords!

It’s fair to say that the 1996 Election Day crossword, pictured above, is one of the most famous puzzles in crossword history. The puzzle “predicted” the outcome of the election quite cleverly by allowing for either CLINTON ELECTED or BOB DOLE ELECTED to read out, depending on how the solver answered seven down clues.

(You can click the image to see a larger version of the grid and clues.)

Reportedly, Will Shortz called it the most amazing puzzle he’d ever seen.

Well, that puzzle may have been topped.

But first, a bit of backstory.

These rare crosswords are called Quantum puzzles or Schrodinger puzzles. These names reference the famous thought experiment involving a very unlucky cat in a box that could be alive or dead, and an observer wouldn’t know which until he opened the box. Meaning that both answers are correct at the same time; the cat is both alive and dead.

[This great t-shirt melds the Schrodinger’s Cat concept with a classic joke.]

Similarly, these puzzles have more than one answer, and each answer is equally correct.

And on Thursday, December 4, constructors Kacey Walker and David Quarfoot combined some considerable Scrabble skills and a dynamite crossword grid to create the most impressive Schrodinger puzzle to date.

You see, clues 26-Across, 36-Across, and 44-Across all feature seven letters, like a rack in Scrabble. And it’s up to the solver to find the anagram of each rack that fits the grid.

For example, 26-Across reads “Play in 7-Across with the rack DEIORRW”. (The answer to 7-Across is SCRABBLE, giving the solver a strong idea of where to go next.)

Quite amazingly, Walker and Quarfoot have designed the puzzle so that each of those clues has three possible correct answers — for 26-Across: ROWDIER, WORDIER, and WORRIED all fit the down clues — meaning there are a staggering 27 possible correct solutions!

This is just one of those 27 solutions:

[You can check out all of the possible solutions, as well as the clues, on XWordInfo here.]

This is David Quarfoot’s 41st NYT published puzzle and Kacey Walker’s first! Talk about setting the bar as high as you can.

This is also one of the flat-out coolest puzzle constructions I’ve ever seen. My thanks to Deb Amlen for doing such a great write-up on the puzzle and for pointing it my way.

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