Puzzle Culture: Tone-Deaf Cluing?

The latest comic on Hayley Gold’s wonderful webpage Across and Down brought an article on Slate to my attention, and I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject.

The article by Ruth Graham was entitled “Why Is the New York Times Crossword So Clueless About Race and Gender?” and the centerpiece of the article was last week’s Tuesday puzzle, particularly the 31-Down clue “Decidedly non-feminist women’s group” for HAREM.

Ick.

HAREM is a troublesome word to clue as it is, one of those filler words that makes crosswords feel so behind-the-times, like PAGAN (which is always clued like “heathen” instead of as someone non-aligned with the bigger religions).

[A crossword that looks as old-timey as modern ones sometimes feel…]

Even the clues that pass for innocuous when it comes to HAREM, like “Sultan’s bevy of beauties,” are a little unpleasant, as if some tuxedo-clad goon is describing the contestants for Miss America, another antiquated practice that should go by the wayside.

But I’m getting off track here.

Graham’s point was about women and people of color being poorly treated by insensitive, thoughtless cluing, and she clearly did her homework while commenting on incidents in the past:

“Hateful” and “awful” may seem a bit harsh for what reads like a lame attempt at cheekiness. But the clue is certainly tone-deaf. And it’s not the first time a puzzle’s un-PC cluelessness has annoyed people. In 2012, the answer ILLEGAL was clued with: “One caught by the border patrol.” The offensive use of illegal as a noun set off a brouhaha that made its way to Univision.

In 2013, a national puzzle syndicate apologized for using the clue “Shylock” for the answer JEW. And in November, Shortz issued a mea culpa for the clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN — presumably with an invisible exclamation point and flying sweat out of a Cathy comic.

[Image courtesy of TheGloss.com.]

I’m surprised she left out the granddaddy of them all when it comes to crossword insensitivity: the June 6, 2008 crossword that featured ETHNIC CLEANSING as 11-Down. (Special thanks to Eric Berlin’s website and Rex Parker’s blog for helping me track down the exact date on that one.)

She went on to discuss the dearth of women and people of color in puzzle constructing — something that is slowly changing, thankfully — as well as the tendency to only bring black culture into crosswords with “homies” and “thugs” in order to clue words like HOOD and GANGSTA, but there was one style of cluing that I feel should also be discussed in the same light.

You’ll see foreign words often clued with the English equivalent, and then some indicator of a foreign place. “One, in Seville” for UNO, or “Sea, in Paris” for MER. That’s all well and good.

[Image courtesy of Tumblr.]

But I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with clues like “June, to Juan” or “Left, to Pablo” that are meant to follow the same format. Picking names that are stereotypically associated with a given culture or ethnicity may not be as overtly hostile as cluing “Gangsta rap characters” as THUGS, but it’s certainly not MUCH better.

And we should do better. 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.

But if each crossword is a tiny time capsule, we should try our damnedest to have it represent the best of us.


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Library Gaming edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of puzzle-game holidays!

[Once again, a board game brings a family together…]

In the past I’ve written plenty about International TableTop Day, the holiday dedicated to social gaming and puzzling. But did you know that in less than two weeks, another puzzle-game holiday arrives?

That’s right, November 15 is International Games Day, an event organized by the American Library Association “to celebrate the mutually-reinforcing power of play and learning.”

From the I Love Libraries website:

Libraries are about sharing culture and information, and games are a form of culture that you often have to share – you often can’t experience them without another player!

They’re also good for brain health, and foster important life skills like socialization, theory of mind and systems literacy. Plus, they’re fun!

Whether video games, tabletop games, social games or other kinds of games, they’re all a part of culture whose importance is only becoming clearer with time. And that means we need to foster the kind of smart engagement that libraries support, for games as well as books.

And while International TableTop Day is synonymous with board games, card games, and roleplaying games, International Games Day encompasses all of the above and more, including online videogames, trivia games, and any other games you can think of.

It’s a terrific opportunity to come out to support both games and your local library, and maybe make a few new friends along the way!

Let us know if you’ll be participating in International Games Day, PuzzleNationers! We’d love to see pictures and hear all about it!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!