We’re Not the Only Ones With Puzzles on the Brain!

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[A photo from the early days of PuzzleNation Blog, as one of our intrepid puzzleboys spreads the word of PuzzleNation far and wide. Image courtesy of Toledo’s Attic.]

I would love to tell you that PuzzleNation Blog is the only game in town when it comes to outstanding puzzle content, but that’s not the truth.

Sure, I think we put out some of the best writing in the puzzle business, but there are other outlets that also pen some marvelous stuff. Deb Amlen’s Wordplay blog on The New York Times website, for instance, is a treasure trove of great material, featuring breakdowns of NYT puzzles, interviews with constructors, and more.

The New Yorker recently posted an intriguing one-two punch of puzzle content. The main article was a meditation on crosswords — their potential, what they mean to a fan, and more — while the accompanying video featured an interview with constructor Natan Last (conducted by crossword editor Liz Maynes-Aminzade) about political entries in puzzles.

What’s slightly more surprising is that another popular Internet outlet has also had puzzles on the brain:

The Onion.

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Three times in the past month or so, the satirical news outlet has posted some hilarious puzzle-centric content. On June 20th, one of their headlines read “Exhilarated Woman Discovers Last Person Who Used Jigsaw Puzzle Left Lots Of Pieces Sticking Together.”

Two weeks earlier on June 6th, the article “Maze With Cheese In Center Enters Human Trials Following Decades Of Testing On Mice,” which feels all too apropos after our post last week about corn mazes.

But the cream of the crop was undoubtedly the article posted on May 28th, “Will Shortz Frustrated That Police Yet To Crack Taunting Puzzles Revealing Locations Of 40 Years Of Murder Victims.”

In a hysterically brief send-up of both the famously mild-mannered Shortz and classic criminal masterminds in general (like the one in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine episode that also featured Shortz, or the one from the Hallmark Crossword Mysteries earlier this year), the article paints the crossword editor as a murderous genius who feels unappreciated in his efforts to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the NYPD:

“I naturally assumed that, at some point during the last four decades, at least one detective would be smart enough to solve the case,” said Shortz, who also implied that the geographic coordinates of the victims could be determined by analyzing the sudoku puzzles in the Sunday edition.

It was one of the funniest pieces of the year for The Onion, and further proof of just how ubiquitous crosswords truly are these days.


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Cultural Sensitivity and Crosswords: The Sequel

It’s a new year, and many folks treat the new year as a clean slate, a jumping-off point from which to launch efforts at self-improvement. They embark on new endeavors, hoping to complete resolutions made in earnest.

Others use the first few days or weeks to try to set the tone for the rest of the year by establishing new routines or breaking from old routines.

Unfortunately, The New York Times crossword is not off to a good start.

We’ve discussed in the past how The NYT crossword has a less-than-stellar reputation for cultural sensitivity, and Tuesday’s puzzle was, for many solvers, more of the same.

Here’s the grid from January 1st:

[Image courtesy of XWordInfo.]

One of those entries, 2 Down, leapt out at many solvers. Yes, it was clued innocently as “Pitch to the head, informally.” But, for millions of people, that word has a far more unpleasant, insulting, and flat-out racist meaning.

It’s natural for people to want to explain this away as unintentional. That becomes harder to accept when it has happened before.

Will Shortz had the following to say in The New York Times Wordplay blog from 2012, after a similar incident involving the answer word ILLEGAL:

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

At the end of the post, Deb Amlen stated:

Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word? Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.

That’s evolution.

Well, it’s happened again.

And this time, being unaware is not an excuse. In Shortz’s apology for this latest mistake, he mentions not only discovering the pejorative meaning of the word in his own research, but that the issue was raised by fellow constructor and XWordInfo archivist Jeff Chen.

In his own take on the puzzle on XWordInfo, Jeff was incredibly kind regarding Shortz, stating:

I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm. This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though.

(Jeff then offers two easy fixes to remove the word from the puzzle, because Jeff is a pro.)

Again, unfortunately, we don’t know if this will lead to any changes at The New York Times. Shortz stated:

My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword. This is an issue that comes up occasionally with entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as “Proceed all right,” but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc. These are legitimate words.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. Of course, it’s not great that one of his examples was employed as part of a misunderstanding in an episode of Scrubs fifteen years ago to similarly unpleasant effect:

Shortz followed up by saying, “Perhaps I need to rethink this opinion, if enough solvers are bothered.”

In response, I think constructor Eric Berlin summed up the issue perfectly:

Perhaps a good rule for this sort of thing is, if you were looking *only at the completed crossword grid* and not at the clues, what would CHINK or GOOK call to mind first?

That’s what I thought, and that’s why I would never dream of using either word in a puzzle.

At least it’s still early in the year. Plenty of time to go onward and upward from here.


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It’s Called a CrossWORD, Not a Crossnumber!

When it comes to crosswords, every solver and constructor has their own ideas about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

And I don’t just mean the age-old debate of pen vs. pencil. Whether we’re talking about answer words, abbreviations, cluing styles, gimmicks like shared letters in one box, or even the number of black squares in a grid, the sheer variation and customization possible is bound to lead to differing opinions.

A recent New York Times Tuesday Mini puzzle was the source of some consternation for solvers when it turned out that the first three boxes across were intended to be filled with numbers, not letters.

The clue? “Easy as ____,” which many solvers mistook, understandably, for PIE. When you factor in that many Times puzzle solvers value their solving speeds as well as their solving experience, the extra seconds (or minutes) “wasted” on a clue that feels misleading can be frustrating.

Some of those solvers took their concerns (and complaints) to Twitter, prompting a response from the official Wordplay Twitter account, which offered up the Easter egg that “123” referred to not only the answer to 1 Across, but also the date the puzzle appeared, 1/23.

That is a nice little bonus, but it wasn’t referenced at all in the clue, so it did little to appease those who were upset with what they consider a breach in crossword etiquette.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock.]

Although I absolutely sympathize with being unexpectedly flummoxed by a clue — it happens to me all the time as a solver — I must admit that this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind when multiple letters share a grid square, or if there’s a number there instead of a letter.

In fact, Alex Eaton-Salners employed the same thing in his “Read the Fine Print” Fireball Crosswords puzzle, and it made my favorite puzzles of 2017 list.

Clearly something like this is going to bother some solvers more than others. What do you think, fellow puzzlers? Does using numbers instead of letters in crosswords bother you or violate your idea of what a good crossword should be?

What about having multiple letters inside one grid square? Do you think that’s a cheat — a way to get around constructing something that actually fits the space — or a clever conceit allowing for more grid and theme flexibility? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject!


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Getting Started with Crosswords

We spend a lot of time talking about crosswords here on PuzzleNation Blog, and rightfully so.

For more than a century now, crosswords have been the standard-bearer for paper-and-pencil puzzles. From your local paper to The New York Times crossword, from online solving to puzzle apps like our very own Penny Dell Crosswords App, crosswords sit comfortably at the apex of the proverbial puzzle mountain, atop worthy also-rans like word searches, cryptograms, and Sudoku.

[Apparently Puzzle Mountain is actually a place. Who knew?]

But in talking about crosswords, it’s easy to forget that not everyone solves them. In fact, plenty of people find them intimidating, given the mix of trivia, wordplay, and tricky cluing that typify many crosswords these days, particularly in outlets like The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and more.

So today, I thought I’d offer some helpful resources to solvers just getting started with crosswords.

First off, if you need help filling in troublesome letter patterns, Onelook is an excellent resource. Not only can you search for words that fit various patterns, but you can narrow your searches according to cluing, look up definitions and synonyms, and even hunt down phrases and partial phrases.

Along the same lines, there are websites like Crossword Tracker that offer informal cluing help culled from online databases. For something more formal, there’s XWordInfo, an online database of entries and cluing that also serves as an archive of NYT puzzles you can search for a small fee.

The NYT Wordplay Blog chronicles each day’s puzzle, including insights into the theme, key entries, and more, plus they’ve begun amassing helpful articles about crossword solving. Not only are there sample puzzles to download and solve to get you started, but there are lists of opera terms, rivers, and sports names to know to make you a stronger solver.

And if British-style or cryptic crosswords are your puzzle of choice, look no further than The Guardian‘s Crossword Blog, which frequently posts about various cluing tricks employed by crafting cryptic puzzle setters. Their “Cryptic Crosswords for Beginners” series of posts has discussed all sorts of linguistic trickery, covering everything from the NATO alphabet to elementary chemistry.

For other variety puzzles, our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles offer sample puzzles and helpful solving tips for many of the puzzles in their magazines. For example, you can find a sample Kakuro or Cross Sums puzzle on the page for their Dell Collector’s Series Cross Sums puzzle book, as well as a How to Solve PDF.

Is there a particular puzzle that troubles you, or one you find too intimidating to tackle, fellow puzzlers? If so, let us know! We can either point you toward a solving resource or tackle the puzzle ourselves in a future post to provide helpful solving tips!


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