The Decade in 10 Words?

botd

[Image courtesy of TV Guide.]

For the last few weeks, we’ve all been awash in lists. Whether it’s covering the year or the decade, there are Best Of, Worst Of, Most Influential, Most Scandalous, Most Underrated, Most Overrated, and many many more.

Heck, we’ve had a bit of fun with year-end lists ourselves in the last week, though we tried not to overdo it.

Smithsonian Magazine even got in on the trend with a recent article. They summarized the 2010s through ten words that made their debut in The New York Times crossword this decade.

It’s an intriguing hook for a list, offering context and brief histories for words like MEME, SEXT, TWEET, BARISTA, and LGBT while discussing their greater social and cultural impact.

Sadly, there were a few times that I felt like the article came up short when representing both crosswords and the puzzle audience in general.

lolmeme

[Image courtesy of YouTube.]

I mean, come on. LOL? Yes, the entry appeared a staggering 48 times during the decade, but it’s been around since the ’90s! This was like IPOD finally making it into crossword grids just in time for iPods to not be a thing anymore. (Thankfully, IPADS salvaged some of those grids.)

They would have been better off including BAE, which is not only more modern (making the first of 10 NYT appearances in 2017), but feels significantly less eyeroll-worthy in this day and age.

I was also less-than-impressed by this statement, which accompanied the entry N.L. EAST:

“Jeopardy!” contestants are notorious for their aversion to sports, a weakness shared by many members of the cruciverbal clique. As it turns out, sports are a big part of American cultural life and have been for quite some while…

This is an embarrassing, reductive cliche that feels straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. There are plenty of sports-savvy constructors and solvers (which explains how N.L. EAST and A.L. EAST ended up in the Times crossword twenty times in total).

The idea that crosswords and sports are mutually exclusive domains isn’t just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

crossword1

I don’t mean for this post to feel like a takedown of the Smithsonian Magazine piece, because for the most part, it was a breezy examination of the decade through the lens of crosswords.

I appreciated the spotlight put on clues for the entries LGBT/LGBTQ, though perhaps a more illuminating glimpse into growing representation of the LGBTQIA+ community would have been mentioning Ben Tausig’s quantum puzzle from September of 2016, which introduced the entry GENDERFLUID to the Times crossword.

Although the entry itself has only appeared twice in the Times thus far, its inclusion in Tausig’s puzzle was noteworthy because it not only introduced the word to new eyes, but deftly explained the idea itself through its theme.

The letter variability — allowing for M or F to appear in a grid square and still fit the definition, a la FIRE/MIRE — is a wonderful metaphor for the fluidity of gender, especially in the limiting, but generally accepted, binary concept of male or female.

To have a puzzle not only debut an important new word, but to provide such valuable context for it in a clever, kind, fun mechanic represents not just where crosswords as a whole are going, but how they can help push us in a better direction in a unique way.

That feels like a more worthwhile note to conclude the decade on than 48 LOLs.


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And… Repeat

repetition

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

I’ve had repetition on the brain lately. Repeatedly. How apropos.

I was talking about plagiarism with a friend of mine recently — a teacher who has dealt with her fair share of plagiarized essays from students — and I quickly summarized the USA Today/Universal Uclick crossword plagiarism scandal from 2016 for her.

She was understandably surprised that plagiarism was a thing in the crossword world — a thankfully rare one — and it got me thinking about intentional repetition vs. unintentional repetition.

When it comes to the Uclick scandal, it was pretty obviously intentional repetition.

crossword-finals-shady

But unintentional repetition happens more often than you’d think. The very rules for creating a traditional themed crossword lend themselves toward duplication, unintentional and otherwise.

Grid layouts, for instance, get reused all the time. When I started constructing, I actually assembled a stack of different grid patterns for 13x and 15x puzzles that I could use, organized by how the theme entries were arranged on the page: 9-13-9, 11-15-11, etc.

Despite the virtually infinite number of ways you could build a 15x grid, you see, when it comes to theme entries — particularly grids with diagonal symmetry and theme entries of matching length — there’s a finite number of ways to build a functioning grid.

So, we know that grids can easily be similar, but what about themes?

There are all sorts of ways that wordplay can inspire crossword themes — anagrams, sound-alike puns, entries reading backwards or being mixed up in a grid, portmanteaus, letters being removed from common phrases (and sometimes placed elsewhere in the grid), etc. — and if more than one constructor comes up with the same idea, you could have repeated entries with no malice or plagiarism involved.

Let’s say multiple constructors are working on puzzles with a similar theme, as they would for some of the tournaments hosted throughout the year, like Lollapuzzoola or the Indie 500. If the tournament had a time theme, it’s reasonable that more than one constructor could come up with a hook like “Time Flies” and look for entries that combine travel and time, coming up with NONSTOPWATCH or LAYOVERDUE.

raven

[Image courtesy of DnD Beyond.]

Constructor Matt Gaffney actually wrote about a case of unintentional theme repetition for Slate years ago, discussing how he and Mike Shenk independently came up with puzzles where the word RAVEN was hidden in longer entries, and four of the five theme entries in the puzzles were the same AND placed similarly in the grid.

It’s a fascinating read that reveals a lot about grid construction, theme design, and puzzle mechanics. It’s the ultimate puzzly example of “great minds think alike.”

So, how do you avoid repeating a theme? Well, a little due diligence can go a long way. Sites like Xwordinfo and Crossword Fiend are great resources for searching theme answers to see if they’ve been done before.

Constructor Patrick Blindauer also offered some advice for coming up with new themes: solve more puzzles. He said, “Solving other puzzles is a good source of theme ideas for me. I try to guess the theme early, sometimes based only on the title; if I turn out to be wrong, I’ve got a new idea to play with.”

In this case, he avoids repetition through imagination. It’s a cool idea, one that will no doubt lead to some terrific new puzzles.


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