Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Myth of Crosswordese


After 20 years of constructing and listening to the discourse around "crosswordese," I still don't know what it is. A lifelong curiosity towards words has probably immunized me against hating EWER, which appears on just about every crosswordese list. If you visit a museum you'll see one in a still-life Ewers are easy to find -- like the ones at Mugi, our neighborhood potters' studio, where they're made and sold.

Each puzzle has its own challenges and while I might avoid certain words from time to time, I don't see them as crosswordese. They're simply words that needn't be feared. The famous "Potent Potables" category on "Jeopardy!" is simply that -- a recurring category. It's not considered "Jeopardy-ese!"

I may not want to use IRE too often, but when Martin Ashwood-Smith clues it as "Pique condition?" . . . I'm reminded that well-written clues will diffuse anyone's ire towards familiar three-letter words. Good cluing, as consistently demonstrated in Sherry O. Blackard's work, makes puzzles glitter. Sherry's puzzles were a hit with solvers, men and women alike. Her grids aren't overly flashy, but the cluing takes takes standard vocabulary to a very high level.

If newspaper columnists were judged by the number of times they repeated certain words--like THE, AND, THEREFORE, ME, I . . . we'd wonder -- why?  When ECRU appears in a newspaper article, it's simply a word. But if it's used in a puzzle on the same page of the same newspaper, it's isolated as crosswordese. How dare the crossword editor use ECRU twice in as many months!

More strangeness -- try finding a single definition. Here's one description:

"Crosswordese refers to hackneyed, obscure words or partial phrases, usually three, four and five letters long, used in crossword puzzles. These words are rarely, if ever, encountered in everyday conversation"

ECRU, againis listed as an example. Well, it may be obscure to someone with a limited vocabulary. But if you've looked at paint chips or read the fashion pages within the last decade . . . you know it's a neutral color.

A lack of familiarity with a word doesn't mean it's obscure.

Google "crosswordese" and you'll find lots of word lists, chosen according to varying sets of criteria. Among the hundreds of words compiled by constructors and solvers, these generated more questions than answers:

ECRU, BALI:   Oh . . . like the ecru-and-white lace Bali lingerie I picked up at Saks?

ETUDE: Oh . . . as in the Chopin Etudes my 15-year-old nephew has listened to and studied since he was 7?

SLOE, BOSC, GALA:  Oh . . . as in the sloe berries, gala apples and bosc pears we bring home from the farmers' market?

SARI: Oh . . . like one of the lovely silken saris my neighbor wears?

STRAD, AMATI: Oh . . . like the violins, violas and cellos that have been in circulation since the 17th century--still seen, played and heard in concert?

IBIS, ISIS:  Oh . . . as in the figures we saw in the Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian Wing?

OLAN:  Oh . . . as in O-lan, a main character in Pearl S. Buck's Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Good Earth? Required reading in high school, college, Oprah's Book Club, or any study of great women writers.

SULA:  Oh . . . as in Toni Morrison's novel Sula--apparent to those interested in more great women writers? (Morrison is a Nobel Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner.)

EVAN: Oh . . . as in the hunky skater Evan Lysacek, Gold Medalist at the Vancouver Olympics and the only reason I'll ever watch Dancing with the Stars?

ARIA, AIDA:  [They're kidding, right?]

After reading the "crosswordese" websites, I was left with the impression that the most overused, hackneyed word in the discourse around crosswords is, well . . . "crosswordese." The list compilers viewed it as (a) bad, (b) a necessary evil, (c) cute, (d) neutral, (e) ugly, (f) all or none of the above.

I have good news for solvers. Crosswordese is a non-issue in puzzlemaking. It's a myth. Why? According to the crosswordese compilers, the offending language always seems to appear in other people's puzzles, never their own . . . except when it does, in which case it's called "fill."

"Crosswordese" doesn't appear in Jim Horne's database of puzzle answers, and so I'll add my definition:

Crosswordese (n.):  The specialized vocabulary of puzzlemaking that, according to constructors, appears in puzzles made by other people. When the same vocabulary appears in their own puzzles, it is referred to as "fill" and is therefore justified.

This excellent PBS documentary, "The Audition," shows that the ARIA is a living art form, performed by young people and simply glorious.


rainman said...

Brava! I get really tired of listening to the inane discussions that crop up when some constructor or editor zeros in on one word and decides it must be banned from all crosswords. The choice is always subjective and arbitrary.

We should accept the simple fact that we live in a diverse culture. One wordsmith's crosswordese is another's "You gotta be kidding!"

Anonymous said...

I would suggest a subcategory of crosswordese -- words we COULD use every day but don't because we have so many symonyms for them. E.g., when's the last time you interrupted a conversation by looking at your watch and saying "My gosh, will you look at the time? I have to hie!"

ArtLvr said...
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ArtLvr said...

Right on, Elizabeth! I agree with your put-down of nit-pickers and loved your examples. Pique condition (IRE) is a silly state for solvers to sink to!

Matt said...
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Matt said...

And besides, who can resist a tête-à-tête between Ooon-Uma and Oleg-Olav.

Joon said...

lovely post, liz. i suppose i could still do without ESNEs, but there are precious few words i have no use for. even the ANOA is growing on me, as i've become absurdly fond of its relative, the ZEBU, who lives in the zoo near our house. and i have a nice QC2M every time i see somebody refer to massively influential (and, incidentally, commercially successful) dr. DRE as "crosswordese."

Sara said...

Thanks, couldn't agree more. My own self-congratulatory definition of crosswordese has always been words that I didn't know before I saw them in a crossword puzzle. The list is pretty short, even though I started solving at 18ish. I could do without ever seeing SSTS again, though.

northberger said...

Although I don't believe excessive crosswordese makes for a great puzzle, I can't disagree with most of your post. My life wouldn't be near as rich without these gems:

I doubt I would've seen the great Thin Man films without learning of ASTA from crosswords.

I would've missed ULEE's Gold.

I wouldn't have listened to Roosevelt's FALA speech.

My knowledge of the history of ATTU would be next to nothing.

I probably never would've bothered to learn the Greek alphabet.

Without crosswords would I know about the environmental disaster of the ARAL Sea? I doubt it.

I'm sure I could go on and on. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Elizabeth said...

Friends, I love your comments--thanks for adding to the discussion. Crosswords introduced me to the NAVE and APSE long before I took an art history course in college.

Joon, I agree; I think that in the pre-software days constructors relied more on the ESNEs and ANOAs; their job was much harder production-wise. Software allows us to manage more in-the-language words. And unlike our predecessors, we can use brand names--that helps a lot.

When I saw ALITO on an on-line "crosswordese" list, I thought-- sheesh, what's so obscure about a sitting Supreme Court Justice?

Long live diversity in crosswords!

Crossword Man said...

Crosswordese is ...

... seeing the same answer in a puzzle three days running!

Elizabeth said...

Crossword Man, in your opinion, is that good or bad?

I'm curious ...

Crossword Man said...

Definitely bad, as I dislike repetition both within crosswords and from day to day. Even a benign answer like aria becomes tedious if you see it too much.

Ulee is a borderline case for being crosswordese. I don't mind seeing the chap once in a while, but he popped up three times in the NYT one week last September - he's had the sense to keep his head down since then.

Only two answers have annoyed me to the point of making it onto my On Notice list: Arnel and iter. A-test, H-test and N-test are getting close and wouldn't be missed IMHO.

That I've got so little to complain about suggests editors take care to give us a lot of variety. Maybe the various crosswordese lists knocking around hark back to a time when editors were less diligent?

Elizabeth said...

I didn't notice the three-peat, and so it's not on my radar. I give editors a lot of slack on that; scheduling puzzles 365 days/year has its own challenges.

To me, a word like ARIA is like an egg; it's a binder in a torte, crabcake or meatloaf. Same egg -- three tastes. It holds things together. I need it for cooking! ;)

I'm not trying to be cute when drawing the columnist parallel; ARIA is like a conjunction (OR, AND, etc.) Interlocking crossword patterns severely reduce word choices. Yet columnists, who don't have these restrictions, use many of the same words every day.

If someone asked you to write tomorrow's blog post without repeating one word from today's, what would that mean? (I hope you'd say nothing and just deck him!)

As for the three-peat, there's always tomorrow and the possibility of a four-peat.

If the newspaper has an official blog, this is a good question for the editor. There'd be a lot of interest in that discourse! :)

Crossword Man said...

An interesting discussion, and I'm finding it hard to disentangle whether the problem with crosswordese is just in the repeated fill or the consequent repetition in cluing. I suspect the latter primarily.

The fact that we have to clue the same set of short words over and over is what makes the difference from writing columns or blogging.

Take our friend Ulee again. He's like the party bore with only one line of conversation - bees. Cluing options for Ulee are limited.

aria isn't quite so bad, but the cluing palette is limited to classical music references: much as I love opera, I would get tired of seeing this one aspect every day in a crossword!

One point I wholeheartedly agree with, is that an innovative clue to a hackneyed word - like your {Pique condition?} for ire example - more than compensates for the repetition. All this suggests the problem isn't the repeated fill per se, but the way that fill gets clued.

Elizabeth said...

The goal I think, is to write good clues to hide those repeated words. As you say, it's tough with ULEE, or ULEES because the film, "Ulee's Gold," offers the only connection.

When ULEE came along, he took the pressure off of UELE, the African River. And who can resist the "___ Gold" clue for ULEES . . . it's not the greatest word, but it starts looking really good, the longer you struggle with a construction. ;)

The best clue writers, like Sherry Blackard, know how to hide the common, repeated words.

I don't think we can avoid repetitions of certain short, familiar words. But bad cluing can be avoided. Well-written clues make an average grid come alive.

Joe Krozel said...

In his crossword specs for the New York Sun, Peter Gordon suggested that every word in the puzzle should be a word that would appear in an article in that paper. To me, that's a good heuristic for avoiding crosswordese. Along a similar vein, I suggest that constructors use words that they would normally use in conversation. Same idea, really.

The second issue raised relates to hackneyed entries. Part of me wants to say that the vocabulary of a puzzle needs to be judged on its own merits -- not on the prevalence of words that appear in other puzzles ... because a constructor has no control over what solvers and other constructors are exposed to. But that would be a bit naive because constructors really do have that info in aggregate form. So, I'll just say that constructors should minimize the use of hackneyed entries.

Finally, I agree with the consensus that the presence of hackneyed entries calls for fresh clues. And, not unexpectedly, the only thing that fresh clues can't fix is ... crosswordese. Why? Because if a solver isn't already familiar with the meaning of an entry, no amount of clueing is going to change that.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Joe . . . it's true, one can't second-guess solvers, editors or constructors.

Individual words, of course, will be repeated. I'm also concerned with thematic originality. Repetition of thematic entries now can be avoided by checking the databases (Jim Horne's at the NYT, say) for previously-used thematic entries.

When fleshing out a new theme, I always check against databases, just to be sure.

It's usually okay; but sometimes there's a repeat, in which case I discard the idea and start anew.

Joe Krozel said...

Liz, you're so right about checking the database for repetition of theme entries. I've had plenty of conventional theme ideas destroyed because I happened to locate the theme entries I intended to use in the database ... attached to puzzles that already used the very theme I had just come up with! (Perhaps that's what drove me in the direction of the completely out-of-the-usual type of theme!)

Anonymous said...

I was tempted to agree with you, and then I saw OTIOSE crossing OTITIS. Both of these words are firmly crosswordese IMO.

Also ALEE (mainly from overuse) and IRAE (mainly since it has one reasonable clue). And ALTHO, which I still don't believe is really a word.

Elizabeth said...

Anon, I agree with the crumminess of an OTIOSE/OTITIS crossing. To me, that's just a bad crossing.

Bad crossings concern me more than individual words.

I'm also concerned about Google-reliance to find out, say, the name of an actress who appeared once during the third season of Gilligan's Island. There'd better be a fair crossing with that name!

IRAE is okay with me. It's part of a Verdi masterpiece and very well known in musical circles. I expect crosswords to blend classical and pop cultures fairly -- just like Jeopardy! does.

I appreciate your opinion; the good news is . . . if you're a constructor, you can choose to eliminate all these words. That's the beauty of making puzzles -- you can roll your own.

I have a mental list of words that I don't use, under any circumstances. (I'm sure most constructors have a similar "no-use" list.")

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!