The Crossword

By Frida Oskarsdottir

Crosswords aren’t for everyone. Many people think it’s strange that at age 30 I’ve loved to do crosswords for the better part of the last decade. The puzzles don’t play fair; the clues are replete with puns and smirks, question marks and winks, often intended to deceive the solver. In order for the letters in crossword puzzles to line up and work logistically, certain words with more common letters are used over and over, like “ODE,” and “ETTU”. These form a language dubbed “crosswordese”, which, according to Wikipedia, includes

words that start and/or end with vowels, abbreviations consisting entirely of consonants, unusual combinations of letters…Such words are needed in almost every puzzle to some extent. Too much crosswordese in a crossword puzzle is frowned upon by cruciverbalists and crossword enthusiasts.”

After you get more acquainted with the rules and become aware of the devices, though, crosswords can be incredibly gratifying. The obscurity of the language slowly erodes and the reward when a particularly troublesome answer clicks into place is something to relish. Most crosswords have themes, meaning longer clues are somehow related to one another and typically include some wordplay, the trickiness of which depends on the day of the week as difficulty increases.   

One of the biggest challenges is that clues often have multiple correct answers at face value, meaning you can’t fill in the boxes until you’re absolutely certain. “Ballpark fig.” can mean “EST” — estimate — or “RBI” — run batted in, a baseball statistic. The abbreviation is another hint: abbreviated clues mean abbreviated answers. Some clues are outright obtuse: “Diamond cutter” may be “MOWER” (I’ll wait for you to get that one, it took me a second and only because my husband is obsessed with baseball). This past Sunday, I chuckled at a clue that read, “Do House work,” the answer to which was “LEGISLATE.” I understand that for some, the idea of a person chuckling at silly and often arcane puns might make their eyes roll into oblivion.

Recently, The Outline published a piece which posited a more sinister notion, that the peculiarities of crosswords, specifically the famous New York Times puzzle, have not just alienating but also racist implications. This is evident, Adrianne Jeffries argues, in clues utilizing foreign languages or non-white cultural phenomena; “Homies’ homes” are “CRIBS”, “Mister in a sombrero” is “SENOR”. Once-innocuous terms that have since earned offensive tags, like “SISSIES,” or “ESKIMOS,” occasionally still find their way in. Jeffries quotes Michael Sharp, author of Rex Parker Does the NYT Crossword, who explains what makes these clues so awkward, “Often the clues feel like they are written by someone for whom these things are weird or exotic, so there is this kind of tone to it that presumes a white audience.”

I’ve always wanted to try my hand at creating my own crossword, and what better time to eschew some of the more limiting elements and have a little fun? The process itself was fun, but also harder than I’d anticipated, which is why the diehard fans (including myself) might roll their eyes at a few of the more dubious clues that resemble strings of letters necessary to make the puzzle work as a whole. As an exercise in language and learning, despite its shortcomings, I will always recommend the crossword and I hope you enjoy this one.