Who Do You Want to See in Crosswords? Make Yourself Heard!

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Crosswords have long been considered the domain of older white men. It’s a stigma on the entire industry, one that has sadly been encouraged by years and years of non-inclusive thinking.

Thankfully, the wheels of change are in motion. We still have a long way to go, but the push for greater representation has never been more aggressive or possessed more momentum than it does right now.

Outlets like Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and The Inkubator are all encouraging female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors. Editors like Erik Agard and David Steinberg are actively recruiting new voices, while constructors like Rebecca Falcon continue to advocate for greater exposure.

But representation isn’t just needed behind the scenes. It’s needed within crosswords themselves. The cluing and the grid entries should also reflect our incredibly diverse, colorful, ever-evolving, spectrum-spanning society.

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We wrote about this in November when The Pudding published the results of a statistical analysis of commonly referenced people in crossword answers.

Well, now there’s a way for you to not only push for greater inclusion, but to actually make suggestions: The Expanded Crossword Name Database.

A Google Form has been created where you can submit the names of women, non-binary individuals, trans individuals, or people of color that you’d like to see in crosswords. They can be contemporary people or historical figures.

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This is one of the coolest things about the Internet. We can crowd-source our ideas and get feedback instantly.

I reached out to Erica Wojcik, who is spearheading the ECND, and she said that there have been over one hundred new submissions in the last week alone!

Click here to check out the form AND to submit your suggestions. You should only submit one name at a time, but you can submit as many times as you like!

I can’t wait to see what sorts of submissions are sent to the ECND. What a marvelous way for everyone to expand their vocabularies and work for greater inclusion in crosswords.

Who would you like to see appear as crossword answers, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to submit them to the ECND! We, and they, would love to hear from you.


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The Valuable Things (and Names and Places) We Learn From Crosswords

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I’ve learned a lot by solving crosswords. Honestly, it’s quite rare for me to solve a crossword and NOT learn something new. Sometimes, I am baffled by a reference I don’t know, and I end up finding out the answer only when the crossing entries are complete.

But that bafflement, that frustrating moment of ignorance, is soon mitigated, and I add a new fact to my ever-growing mental crossword library.

How many words have you learned by solving crosswords? How many geographic places do you know because of solving crosswords? How many actors, scientists, authors, musicians, and figures from pop culture do you know from solving crosswords? How many nuggets of trivia have you tucked away in the dusty parts of your brain that you picked up from an unexpectedly informative clue in a crossword?

Sure, we joke about the silent film stars and European rivers and African animals that often fall under the banner of crosswordese, but only because we’ve seen them enough to know them. We crave new entries, new peculiarities of language, and new crossword clue fodder to challenge and engage us in equal measure.

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A recent USA Today puzzle clued the word POEM with “Victoria Chang creation,” and a friend of the poet Victoria Chang, Nan Cohen, shouted out constructor Zhouqin Burnikel and editor Erik Agard on Facebook for including Chang in the puzzle.

Nan’s post went on to ask about how Chang ended up in the puzzle (though she thought it was cluing OBIT, Chang’s poetry book, instead of POEM, the actual answer):

I am curious, if you can share, how did you arrive at the cluing and decide it was accessible enough? (I love that it’s a new way of cluing OBIT, and of course that it represents an Asian American poet–cannot think when I have ever seen a contemporary Asian American poet in a puzzle, although Arthur SZE (who won the National Book Award in 2019) might be helpful to someone sometime).

The praise for both Burnikel and Agard is well-earned — Agard was quick to clarify that the clue was 100% Burnikel’s doing — but the discussion itself highlights an important issue in modern crosswords: the concept of who is “crossword-worthy.”

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Natan Last discussed this very topic in a brilliant piece in The Atlantic last year, citing the following troubling examples of “crossword-worthy” gatekeeping in major outlets:

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.

Appropriately enough, Last’s piece mentions a puzzle by constructor Sally Hoelscher, and Sally herself replied to the Facebook post celebrating Chang’s inclusion in the USA Today crossword:

One thing I enjoy about the USA Today puzzle is that Erik and the constructors are intentional about lifting up and highlighting those who may not be deemed “crossword-worthy” by some publications. I was delighted to learn about Victoria Chang from this puzzle, and to learn about her book, OBIT, when I was researching her to write my blog.

I can’t say for certain how many solvers were already familiar with Victoria Chang or her works, but I suspect the majority of USA Today crossword fans learned something new that day.

That is reason enough to keep pushing the boundaries of what is considered “crossword-worthy.” Inclusion encourages visibility, which encourages greater participation in crosswords, which feeds into greater inclusion. And along the way, solvers are exposed to worthwhile individuals and ideas, learning more about the world we live in.

Sounds like a win-win to me.


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Representation in Crosswords: A Fresh Look

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We live in a data-driven world these days. Everything is quantified, analyzed, charted, and graphed. Your social media use alone is an absolute treasure trove of data that tells businesses all sorts of information about your activities, spending habits, and more.

So it should come as no surprise to you that the world of crosswords is no different. In recent years, we have been able to analyze decades of crosswords like never before, drawing important conclusions and uncovering trends both intriguing and shocking.

Back in 2016, the data analysis of programmer Saul Pwanson and constructor Ben Tausig uncovered a pattern of unlikely repeated entries in the USA Today and Universal crosswords, both of which were then edited by Timothy Parker. Eventually, more than 65 puzzles were determined to feature “suspicious instances of repetition” with previously published puzzles in the New York Times and other outlets, with hundreds more showing some level of repetition.

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This led to Parker’s removal from both the USA Today and Universal crosswords.

But the impact of data analysis in crosswords doesn’t stop there. In 2018, Erik Agard compiled stats on how often the work of female constructors appeared in the major crossword outlets across the first four months of that year. It was an eye-opening piece about gender disparity among published constructors, backed up by smart research.

And there has been a greater push for inclusion on the construction side of crosswords. Back in March, at the urging of constructor Rebecca Falcon, several outlets participated in Women’s March, a concentrated effort in the puzzle community to support, foster, and cultivate more minority voices in crosswords.

(It comes as no surprise that two of the voices encouraging female puzzle creators are Erik Agard and David Steinberg, both of whom stepped up massively in the wake of the Timothy Parker scandal and have been advocates for greater inclusiveness in crosswords.)

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[The list of all of the female constructors involved in Universal’s Women’s March project.]

This does raise the question, however, of inclusiveness when it comes to cluing and crossword entries.

And that question has been tackled quite brilliantly by Michelle McGhee in an article for The Pudding.

Striving to “better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles,” McGhee made a strong point about the influence crosswords have as a reflection on society:

Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).

A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and significant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.

And she put the data to work to prove her point.

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Sampling tens of thousands of crosswords from Saul Pwanson’s puzzle database, she and her fellow researchers sorted people mentioned in crossword clues and used as crossword answers by race and gender according to US Census categories.

And their conclusion, sadly, was hardly unexpected:

We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else.

Not only did they chart the percentages of representation, but they also created charts illustrating the most commonly referenced people in crossword answers in the New York Times puzzle.

The goal? They wanted to quantify the concept of “common knowledge” in crosswords in the hopes of redefining it in a way that better reflects a true common knowledge, one that represents everyone.

I’m only scratching the surface of this article, which is a fascinating exploration of the history of crosswords, what they say about society, and what they COULD say about society. I encourage you wholeheartedly to read McGhee’s full piece here.

It’s the sort of journalism, commentary, and data analysis that helps push a problematic aspect of crosswords into the spotlight and keep it there. Yes, there have been great steps forward for representation in crosswords, both within the puzzles and in the realm of constructors, but we can do better. We must do better.

And work by folks like Michelle McGhee and her graph-savvy data miners is a valuable part of the process.


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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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