More Words About Crosswords

Yitzchak Relkin, here. Cruciverbalist, lover of words that cross, and Hamodia’s puzzle editor.

I have a bone to pick with Mordechai Schiller’s language column “Cross With Word Puzzles” (September 19, page 33). I’m sorry in advance for my long-winded rebuttal, but I feel some detailed explanation is in order. Also, even though he says he rarely solves, I hope MY puzzles sometimes make Mr. Schiller laugh.

That is the main goal of constructors: puzzles should entertain and make you laugh. Of course, it’s also great if solvers are challenged and learn new words. But, that is not the main goal; puzzles should not be vocabulary tests.

Mr. Schiller argues in favor of dictionaries, “Each definition is a short course in linguistics, history and culture,” yet against crossword puzzles because, he says, they are merely “words out of context.”

Puzzles give the same short course in linguistics, history and culture. They definitely reflect the times we live in. Some deal with current events, whether social or political. Some mention words or ideas that are speeding through the culture. Modern puzzles mention product names and people in current events.

To see how puzzles DO reflect the times, they need to be examined at the meta level: puzzles are a form of mainstream entertainment. So anything that appears in puzzles must have reached a certain critical mass of social saturation or acceptance before they appear in puzzles. It’s mainly that certain words or ideas become “acceptable” to use, whereas some might not have been even a few years ago.

Here are few well-known examples:

  1. The 1996 election puzzle between Clinton and Dole. The constructor was clever enough to create a grid where both CLINTON as well as BOBDOLE successfully fit into the grid and all the down answers still make sense, no matter which candidate the solver filled in. This type of puzzle is frequently called a quantum puzzle, vis-a-vis quantum mechanics, which states that things can exist in more than one state at one time.
  2. Tetris-themed puzzle

Not only did the theme answers deal with Tetris: DONTLETTHE FALLINGBLOCKS REACHTHETOP, but all the black squares were arranged in the shape of tetris puzzle pieces.

  1. Corporate product names and public figures now commonplace in puzzles

Starting with Will Shortz’s generation of crossword editors, solvers would never see names of products like AMANA, NIVEA, EVIAN, MOTELSIX, NESTLE, NESTEA, or public figures such as entertainers and politicians.

Just look at the history of crosswords themselves. They started out very straightforward: dictionary definitions; emphasis on the words themselves, minimal reference to the world and culture outside of them; no pop culture references; no product names. I consider this to be very dry and, let’s face it, boring.

Finally in the mid- to late-’80s, what’s been called the “New School” began to have outside influence on crosswords: Will Shortz, Merle Reagle and Stan Newman, among others, made known their distaste for boring puzzles as they began working in the puzzle and games industry. These men were afraid that staid, boring puzzles would not have new generations of people enjoying and solving. All eventually became extremely influential by creating more vibrant and culturally aware puzzles.

Besides more challenging themes, more entertaining clues, constructors and editors began to use words in the grid that reflect much more of the real life of the solvers. Mr. Newman talks about what prompted him to become vocal about changing puzzles.

In particular, Mr. Newman fought valiantly against obscure clues and answers that no one is going to know unless they constantly solve puzzles. It’s what is known as “crosswordese”: obscure definitions of obscure words that people don’t see outside of puzzles. Modern editors have even banned or greatly reduced the usage of crosswordese words or clues.

So, puzzles do, in fact, give us a window into the language, culture and times we live in.

Happy solving!

Yitzchak Relkin, New York