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

Problem-solving-crossword

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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How Far Crosswords Have Come (and How Much Farther They Have to Go)

Problem-solving-crossword

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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Crosswords: Scourge of Society!

Study history for any length of time, and patterns will emerge. One of the most curious patterns is how new forms of recreation are embraced, then inevitably sensationalized, stigmatized, and finally vindicated when cooler heads prevail. You see it over and over again in pop culture across the decades.

Video games continue to suffer from periodic demonization, accused of instigating violence in children. Harry Potter books are still banned by some schools and communities for spreading occult ideas. Not so long ago, one of my favorite pastimes — Dungeons & Dragons — was maligned as Satanic and damaging to young minds.

All of these panics were (and are) patently ridiculous. After all, you can go back through history and find other examples that are absolutely ludicrous in retrospect.

For example, check out this excerpt from The San Antonio Texan from August 26, 1858, about the dangers of overindulging in reading:

A whole family brought to destitution in England, has had all its misfortunes clearly traced by the authorities to an ungovernable passion for novel reading entertained by the wife and mother. The husband was sober and industrious, but his wife was indolent and addicted to reading everything procurable in the way of romance. This led her to utterly neglect her husband, herself and her eight children.

One daughter in despair, fled the parental home, and threw herself into the haunts of vice. Another was found by the police chained by the legs to prevent her from following her sister’s example. The house exhibited the most offensive appearance of filth and indigence. In the midst of this pollution, privation and poverty, the cause of it sat reading the last ‘sensation work’ of the season, and refused to allow herself to be disturbed in her entertainment.

That is proper nonsense.

And yet, it should come as no surprise to you, fellow puzzler, that crosswords also received this kind of treatment. Yes, crosswords were the focal point of a moral panic.

Arthur Wynne’s “word-cross” first appeared in The New York World in 1913. Simon & Schuster published The Cross-Word Puzzle Book, edited by Margaret Farrar, in 1924. 1924 also marked the first time a UK newspaper, The Sunday Express, would publish crosswords. By that point, crosswords were officially a fad, inspiring fashion trends (black and white patterns), hit songs, and musical revues on Broadway.

Ah, 1924. It was a strange year for crosswords. Because 1924 also saw some of the most inflammatory accusations hurled at the simple pencil-and-paper puzzles.

In November of that year, Canadian Forum referred to the spread of crosswords as an “epidemic obsession.”

The paper went on to psychoanalyze crossword solvers, claiming that crosswords were, at heart, a regressive and childish pursuit:

It is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child’s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.

The same year, The London Times went so far as to call America “enslaved” by the puzzle:

[The crossword] has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society… [people were seen] cudgeling their brains for a four-letter word meaning ‘molten rock’ or a six-letter word meaning ‘idler,’ or what not: in trains and trams, or omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting-rooms, in factories and homes, and even — although as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.”

That church reference was particularly notable, as there were church sermons decrying the negative influence of crosswords on society. Sermons! Imagine crosswords being treated like heavy metal in the ’80s. It’s mind-boggling.

Much like that hyperbolic story about a family decimated by reading, newspapers published dubious tales of familial collapse sparked by crosswords:

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).

And The New York Times, bastion of puzzles for the last 75 years? Yes, even the Gray Lady had harsh things to say about crosswords:

Scarcely recovered from the form of temporary madness that made so many people pay enormous prices for mahjongg sets, about the same persons now are committing the same sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.

The paper went on to call crosswords “a primitive form of mental exercise” and compare their value to that of so-called brain teasers that should be solved by schoolchildren in 30 seconds or less.

Crosswords wouldn’t debut in the New York Times until 1942.

But could there have been a hint of truth buried beneath all the sensationalism? Perhaps.

There were reports that overzealous solvers, desperate for an edge over other puzzlers, went so far as to desecrate books at the New York Public Library in order to prevent others from utilizing the same resources. A sign, circa 1937, firmly stated that “the use of library books in connection with contests and puzzles is prohibited.”

Those darn crossword addicts, always getting into trouble. Can’t trust ’em.

So, the next time someone tells you crosswords are boring and passe, you can tell them that crosswords were as cool and as dangerous as rock n’ roll, once upon a time.

Heck, they still are.

[Thanks to The Atlantic, The Senior Times, Historical Nonfiction on Tumblr, The 13th Floor, and CommuniCrossings for images and quotations.]


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