Crosswords as Pop Culture Shorthand?

In television and movies, there are a lot of different techniques for revealing character traits. While some shows spend time developing their characters and slowly revealing their traits to the audience, other shows rely on visual shorthand. You often see a letterman’s jacket for a jock, or glasses for a nerdy boy or a mousy girl.

The act of solving a crossword puzzle has also become visual shorthand in pop culture. Crosswords often serve as a universal sign of intelligence.

In an episode of Jimmy Neutron, Sheen is shown solving a crossword puzzle in ink. This is an instantaneous sign that his brainpower has increased. (And when Cindy points out that her dad does the same thing, Sheen one-ups her by saying the puzzle is from The Beijing Times.)

It could have been math or organization or memorization, but instead, they went with crosswords.

In The Wire, the show uses a scene with a crossword to reveal that there’s more to street-smart Omar Little than meets the eye. Before testifying at Bird’s trial, he helps the bailiff with a crossword clue, identifying the Greek god of war as Ares. The scene immediately punches holes in several stereotypes both characters and viewers might have about the character.

This also happens on Mad Men, where one of the founders of the company is solving a crossword, only to be corrected by one of the secretaries. For that brief moment, the playing field has been levelled.

And because crosswords are seen as this visual shorthand for intelligence, they’re also used as a intellectual measuring stick, for better or for worse.

Rachel on Friends struggled with a crossword for an entire episode to prove she didn’t need anyone’s help, but still has to obliquely obtain information from others to finish the puzzle.

In an episode of House, M.D., House goes speed-dating, and is initially intrigued by a woman who brought a crossword puzzle with her. But when he notices she’s filled in random words instead of actually solving it — in order to pass herself off as someone she’s not — he quickly bursts her bubble in typically acerbic fashion.

P.G. Wodehouse loved to reveal the intelligence — or lack thereof — of characters through the use of crossword clues as fodder for banter. And that’s because it works. The audience draws conclusions based on these interactions.

In a fifth-season episode of Angel, a doctor is shown asking his receptionist for random crossword clues, only to fail at answering several. This immediately colors the audience’s opinion of him.

Crosswords can also be used as a mirror to reflect differences between characters. On The West Wing, President Bartlet couldn’t get past his own presuppositions and assumptions to properly complete the puzzle, while the First Lady had no problem navigating the same puzzle because of her own diplomatic skills.

Similarly, the parents in an episode of Phineas and Ferb show off their dynamic while solving a crossword. The father implies that every answer is obvious, and then waits for his wife to actually provide the answer. It says volumes about him, her, and the two of them as a pair.

But all of this raises the question: is this fair? Is the one-to-one association of crosswords and intelligence in pop culture valid?

[Check out this stock image from Deposit Photo.]

Crosswords are, essentially, piles of trivia and information, crisscrossing vocabulary locked behind clever or vague cluing. But are intelligence and access to information the same thing?

I mean, we’ve discussed the issue of crossword accessibility in the past. Many female constructors, constructors of color, and LGBTQIA+ constructors are helping to change the language used in crosswords, but plenty of people still see them as the domain of older white men. Which implies it’s not actually intelligence, just what older white men deem to be reflective of intelligence.

For a long time, pop culture clues were considered unwelcome or verboten. Beneath the crossword, even. Different editors bring different definitions of what’s appropriate for the puzzle.

And if people associate crosswords with intelligence because of this visual shorthand, and they don’t see themselves reflected in the puzzle, then they suffer from that jagged flip side of the pop culture coin. They’re excluded because of the measuring stick.

I realize most of the examples I cite above are intended to be humorous. Bartlet’s wrong answers are meant to be funny, as is Rachel’s struggle or the dad’s inability to answer on Phineas and Ferb.

But it’s worth mentioning that anyone who feels like they’ve been rapped across the knuckles by the measuring stick carries that with them. I’ve seen it plenty of times when I tell somebody that I work in puzzles. If they “can’t do them,” they look down when they say it. They already carry that visual shorthand with them.

While it’s fascinating that crosswords are part of that immediately recognizable pop culture lexicon, I also kinda wish that they weren’t.


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Puzzly Tombstones for October 1st!

[Image courtesy of How To With Kristin.]

It’s October 1st, and for many folks, it’s the official start of the spookiest of seasons, aka the lead-up to Halloween.

One of the things I really enjoy about the weeks before Halloween is seeing the decorations go up, and wondering just how elaborate they’re going to get. One house near me does a big fake spider web every year that’s made out of rope and dominates half of their yard!

But it’s the little fake tombstones that get me. It’s a simple thing, but I quite enjoy how people always put something interesting on them. Sometimes it’s funny inside jokes, or silly punny names like Bart Simpson would use to prank Moe the bartender on The Simpsons.

And it occurs to me that we as puzzlers could get in on this. Puzzly tombstone decorations! Why not?

Here are a few real-world examples to spark some ideas for you.

This gorgeous design adorns the gravestone of Michael and Elisabeth Ayrton. He was a painter and sculptor, and she was a writer.

It’s simple, but quite lovely.

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If you wanted, you could recreate this puzzly tribute that took passersby a century to finally unravel.

In a similar vein, this tombstone hides a simple message in thousands of different ways, if you know where to get started.

You could hide a coded message on them, like James Leeson did with his own tombstone in the Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan.

You could even offer a riddle or puzzly epitaph for people to solve, like this one found on the gravestone of Henry Rogers in Christchurch Priory in Dorset.

So what do you think, fellow PuzzleNationers? Will you be decorating with any puzzle-inspired tombstones? Or maybe you have something else that’s puzzle-inspired in store for Halloween.

Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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Spies, Crosswords, and Secret Messages!

secret message

There are loads of ways to hide secret messages in puzzles. The field of cryptography is built around it. Many meta puzzles have a special secret lurking inside their clever constructions. Heck, our friends at Penny Press even have an entire word seek called Secret Message.

But have you ever noticed that there’s a strange fascination in pop culture with secret messages in crosswords?

No, I don’t mean constructors hiding quotations, poems, or word seeks in their crosswords, though those are impressive feats of cruciverbalism.

I’m talking about stories about actual secret messages concealed in crossword grids, meant to be hidden from even the most diligent solvers, only a special few possessing the keys to finding the hidden words.

Oh, believe me, it’s definitely a thing.

Look no further than the first Crossword Mysteries movie. The film opens with a murdered art gallery owner with a crossword in his pocket. And it turns out that a devilish criminal mastermind was submitting puzzles to Tess’s daily crossword that contained hidden instructions for robberies to be conducted that day. Diabolical!

You might laugh, but this is hardly the only time we’ve seen crime, secret messages, and crosswords combined. It was a plotline in the radio show The Adventures of Superman, and Lois Lane’s life once depended on Superman’s ability to solve a crossword puzzle.

There are any number of mystery novels, cozy and otherwise, that contain hidden messages in crosswords. Nero Blanc’s Anatomy of a Crossword and Corpus de Crossword come to mind, as do any number of murder mysteries where a strange message scribbled on a crossword grid turn out to be a pivotal clue to catch the killer.

And there’s an even more curious subset of this in pop culture: crosswords and spycraft.

I could give you a simple example, like Bernie Mac’s character in the Ocean’s 11 remake pretending to solve a crossword, but actually writing down key information about the casino for the upcoming heist.

But that’s not really a secret message IN a crossword. No, it’s more of a secret message ON a crossword, though it is a bit of decent spycraft.

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[From Spy vs. Guy.]

Let’s talk about spies and their crosswords, then.

In the TV show Burn Notice, former (and occasionally current) spy Michael Weston sometimes received hidden messages from his previous spy organization through the crossword, though we’re not given much info on how this is achieved.

In the James Bond prequel novel Double or Die, it’s actually the young Bond’s teacher who sneaks a secret message into a puzzle. He’s also a cryptic crossword editor, and he convinces his kidnappers to allow him to submit a crossword to the newspaper, because if he didn’t, it would let people know all was not well.

Naturally, the kidnappers didn’t spot the clues to his current location that the teacher had hidden in the puzzle. Bond, even in his youth, manages to do so with ease.

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In the short-lived TV show Rubicon, crosswords are at the center of a fascinating unsolved mystery. An intelligence agent named Will finds out his mentor committed suicide after seeing a four-leaf clover.

He then finds a pattern across several crosswords that leads him to believe his mentor’s death is somehow connected to the pattern in the crosswords, and he tells his superior about it.

And soon after investigating it himself, Will’s superior is also found dead. Unfortunately, we never get a resolution for this story, but it certainly fits the bill.

So yes, the curious connection between secret messages and crosswords in pop culture is definitely a thing.

But did you know it also extends beyond fiction? Yup, I’ve got some real-world examples for you too.

Back in June of 1944, physics teacher and crossword constructor Leonard Dawe was questioned by authorities after several words coinciding with D-Day invasion plans appeared in London’s Daily Telegraph.

The words Omaha (codename for one of Normandy’s beaches), Utah (another Normandy beach codename), Overlord (the name for the plan to land at Normandy on June 6th), mulberry (nickname for a portable harbor built for D-Day), and Neptune (name for the naval portion of the invasion) all appeared in Daily Telegraph crosswords during the month preceding the D-Day landing.

So it was possible (though highly improbable) that Dawe was purposely trying to inform the enemy of Allied plans, and the powers that be acted accordingly. In the end, no definitive link could be found, and consensus is that Dawe either overheard these words himself or was told them by his students — possibly slipped by soldiers stationed nearby — and placed them into his grids unwittingly.

Yes, this was just a big misunderstanding. But sometimes, accusations like this have real-world consequences.

In Venezuela, a newspaper has been accused multiple times of hiding encrypted messages within their daily crossword puzzles in order to incite revolt against the government.

Another Venezuelan newspaper was accused of concealing messages ordering the assassination of a public official named Adan, the brother of President Hugo Chavez!

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Some of the answers considered suspicious in the grid included “Adan,” “asesinen” (meaning “kill”), and “rafaga” (which can mean either a burst of gunfire, or a gust of wind).

Apparently this confluence was considered enough to warrant a half-dozen members of the intelligence service visiting the newspaper’s editorial office.

Now, were these cases of genuine secret messages being passed through the crossword, or were these coincidental events that appeared credible because the crossword/secret message concept has been part of pop culture for decades?

I leave that question to you, fellow puzzlers.

Can you think of any examples of crosswords with secret messages in pop culture or intersections of crosswords and spycraft that weren’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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The Boswords Themeless League Returns Soon (Plus Some Puzzle Activism!)

boswords new

The Boswords summer crossword tournament has been a highlight of the puzzly calendar for years now, but during the pandemic, they also made a splash with their Fall and Spring Themeless Leagues.

And registration is now open for the Boswords 2021 Fall Themeless League!

If you’re unfamiliar, the Fall Themeless League is a clever weekly spin on traditional crossword tournament-style solving. Instead of cracking through a number of puzzles in a single day (or two), the Fall Themeless League consists of one themeless crossword each week, scored based on your accuracy and how fast you complete the grid.

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Each week’s puzzle only has one grid, but there are three sets of clues, each representing a different difficulty level for solvers. Smooth is the least challenging, Choppy is the middle ground, and Stormy is the most challenging. (When solvers register to participate, they’ll choose the difficulty level that suits them best.)

Sign up, and you get two months of puzzly fun running through October and November!

Plus, they’ve already announced a dynamite lineup of constructors for this season’s puzzles. Here’s the full list: Evan Birnholz, Kameron Austin Collins, Mollie Cowger, Debbie Ellerin, Leslie Rogers, Quiara Vasquez, Byron Walden, Nam Jin Yoon, and the team of Angela Olson Halsted and Doug Peterson.

There’s a terrific mix of established names and up-and-coming constructors there, and I expect the season to be a terrific exploration of the best of themeless crosswords.

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The project is once again being spearheaded by the dynamic duo of John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, and Brad Wilber will be the puzzle editor.

It’s only $30 to enter as an individual participant ($40 for Pairs), but there’s also a student/discount level for participants who may find the $30 price tag too steep. (There are also puzzle packets from the previous Themeless Leagues available for $10 apiece.)

The Boswords Seasonal Themeless League events have not only opened my eyes to the creativity and skill required for themeless crosswords, but they’ve become some of my favorite parts of the puzzly calendar.

Be sure to click this link for more information, sample puzzles, instructional videos, and more.

And you can check out our thoughts on both the 2020 Fall Themeless League and the 2021 Spring Themeless League for more info as well!


Puzzling and charitable acts often intersect. This is true of the Boswords team with their wonderful discounted option for participants, as well as their donation to Boston-based charities from the proceeds of their summer tournament

And while we’re discussing the intersection of puzzling and doing good, it’s worth mentioning that there are numerous examples of crossword projects working hand-in-hand with social activism for the greater good.

Queer Qrosswords, Women of Letters, and the charity puzzle packets organized by our friends at Lone Shark Games are only a few examples. All of them provide puzzle bundles for you to enjoy if you show them that you’ve donated to worthwhile charities and other helpful groups and causes.

But there’s another one you might not have heard about: These Puzzles Fund Abortion.

This puzzle packet, originally created to raise funds for the Baltimore Abortion Fund, contains the work of over a dozen constructors, and serves as a marvelous incentive to donate to abortion funds all over the country.

Please click this link hosted by Just Gridding for more information. It’s a terrific way to do some good.


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Younger Solvers and Constructors Building Online Crossword Communities!

It’s a dynamic, fluid time for crosswords. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a sea change.

Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community are featured more often, although we still have a LONG way to go on all of those fronts where representation is concerned, both for constructors and editorial staff.

Younger voices are rising up the ranks, and helping to influence the direction of crossword language through projects like the Expanded Crossword Name Database. Online resources like more inclusive word lists, free or discounted editing software (often constructed by younger solvers!), and words of guidance from online crossword collaboration groups are more available than ever.

Recently, these topics were tackled in The New York Times itself in an article about younger crossword enthusiasts penned by freelance writer and reporter Mansee Khurana.

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Her article is a terrific snapshot of the modern crossword world.

It discusses the divide between older solvers and younger, and how the content of crosswords doesn’t always serve both sides. It tackles the concept of “evergreen puzzles” — crosswords edited for timeless reprint value, eschewing up-to-date and provocative references that would appeal to younger solvers and underrepresented groups for the sake of republication later.

The article mentions the many virtual and online spaces that are now comfortable haunts for younger crossword fans. Facebook forums, Discord chats, Zoom solving parties, Crossword Twitter, r/crossword on Reddit, and even Tiktok accounts dedicated to crosswords got some time in the sun, and it’s really cool to see how these new spaces have emerged and grown more influential.

[A solve-along video from YouTube, Twitch, and Crossword Tiktok user
Coffee and Crosswords. Actual solving starts around 10 minutes in.]

Several names familiar to crossword solvers were cited as well. Constructors like Sid Sivakumar (mentioned just yesterday in our Lollapuzzoola wrap-up), Nate Cardin, and Malaika Handa were all quoted in the piece, reflecting many of the same concerns we’ve heard from new and upcoming solvers in some of our recent 5 Questions interviews.

I actually remember the author’s post reaching out to the contributors and readers of r/crossword a few months ago, and I was glad to see the subreddit getting some mainstream attention. Yes, like any internet forum, it can be combative and argumentative at times, but that’s a rarity.

Most of the time, it’s a supportive community for crossword fans and aspiring constructors, a place where they share questions, bravely offer up their first attempts for input and criticism, and discuss all things puzzly. It’s genuinely inspiring to see new solvers on a near-weekly basis reaching out and being embraced by fellow solvers and cruciverbalists-in-progress.

I highly recommend you take the time out to read Mansee’s piece. She captures a true sense of not just where crosswords are now, but where they’re headed. And if these young people have anything to say about it, it’s headed somewhere very bright indeed.


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Indianagrams and More: A Puzzly Hashtag Game!

A quick reminder before we start today’s post:

Lollapuzzoola is tomorrow, Saturday, August 21st, and you have until midnight Eastern tonight to sign up for this marvelous virtual crossword tournament!

Click here for full details! And happy puzzling!


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You may be familiar with the board game Schmovie or hashtag games on Twitter.

For years now, we’ve been collaborating on puzzle-themed hashtag games with our pals at Penny Dell Puzzles, and this month’s hook was #PennyDellPuzzleGeography. Today’s entries all mash up Penny Dell puzzles, magazines, and products with geographical terms, famous places, map features, and more!

Examples include Stepping Stonehenge, Sri Linkwords, and Istanbul’s-Eye Spiral.

So, without further ado, check out what the puzzlers at PuzzleNation and Penny Dell Puzzles came up with!


DiagramAtlas

E-Quote-or

Longitudinal Division

Escala-Terrain

Insert-a-World

Globe-servation Post

Arctic Circle Sums

Across and Down Under / Across and Down East

Compass Rose Garden

South of the Borderline

Finland the Fours / Finish the Forest

Grand Turin / Rio Grande Tour

Bricks and Mauritania

Hohokus-Pocus

“The Land of the Midnight Sunrays”

SiliConnections Valley

Annapolisgrams

The Bermuda Triangle Seek

Foggy Top to Bottom

OkefenoKeyword Swamp / O-Keyword-Fenokee Swamp

Orkeywords Islands

Florida Keywords

Plateau-psy Turvy Fill-In

LogiC-artography

Calming Color-ado River

Sudo-Kuwait

Themeyscira

Archi-Dell-ago

Penn-solve-ania

Niagara Quotefalls

Giant’s Crossway

Match-Up Picchu

Tropic of Kanter


Naturally, one of our intrepid contributors went above and beyond, penning this delightful description of a particularly puzzly place:

I don’t know much about Geography, but I do know to take Three from Nile when visiting the Foursome Corners, which of course is where Utah the Odds, Colorado by Numbers, Pair Off-izona, and some oddball called New Mexico come together. Not sure how New Mexico even belongs in the Foursome Corners but there it is, Crypto-Geographically speaking, sorta makes it a Mystery State if you know what I mean. I learned about is when Dora the Exploraword pulled an atlas out of her backpack.


Did you come up with any Penny Dell Puzzle Geography entries of your own? Let us know! We’d love to see them.

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