For the Love of Crosswords: How the Beloved Puzzle is Reshaping to Reflect Our Modern World

My addiction to crossword puzzles began with a misunderstanding. Early on in the pandemic, my mom remarked how my brother, who lives in Brooklyn, was enjoying The New Yorker puzzle. As a New Yorker addict, I immediately assumed she was referring to the magazine’s crossword. Thus, to keep up with a common activity that would hopefully link us despite quarantining on opposite sides of the country, I decided to try my hand at what would become a fabulous way to pass the time during the long days of the pandemic.

But my mom was in fact referring to the jigsaw puzzle of a New Yorker cover we had sent him—not the crossword. Oh well. My love affair with crosswords had already begun.

I looked forward to every Monday and Friday, when my beloved magazine published the “challenging puzzle” and the “lightly challenging puzzle,” respectively. Later, it would introduce a third, “moderately challenging puzzle” on Wednesdays, which felt like an early Christmas present. This addition proved to be vital, for as my skills continued to improve, I finished each puzzle more quickly and could not have waited until Friday for a fresh one.

I developed a routine where I would print out the puzzle, grab a pencil with a good eraser, and bring them with me just about everywhere. Only much later did I realize that crossword puzzles, for me, were a politically correct form of escapism, a method to distract myself from my own thoughts, the painful idleness of boredom, the excruciating feeling of a lack of productivity. Crosswords became my Netflix, my Sports Center, my reality TV. But surely the compulsion was different than these, I told myself. Crossword puzzles challenge the mind; they make one smarter! But a distraction is a distraction is a distraction, and, sometime or another, one will have to face what one was trying to escape.

The first “Word-Cross puzzle” was created in 1913 by New York World editor Arthur Wynne, who wanted to add something new and exciting to the paper’s FUN section. An illustrator later mistakenly referred to the game as a “Cross-Word,” and hence the name was born.

But the puzzles, in one sense, were vital; they provided readers a brief respite from the dire news of the first World War that seemed to dominate the papers at the time. And after the war ended, readers still gravitated toward them. Richard Simon and M. Lincoln Schuster—founders of the famed publishing house Simon & Schuster—published a crossword book, which came with a free pencil, in 1924. There was even a comic strip called “Cross Word Cal,” created by the cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller, and a 1925 Disney short entitled “Alice Solves the Puzzle.”

Today, the most well-known crossword puzzle publisher is arguably The New York Times, but the newspaper was relatively late to embrace the national—and global—trend. The Times believed that games of that sort were beneath them and undermined their high journalistic standards. Indeed, a 1924 opinion column in the newspaper described crosswords as “a primitive sort of mental exercise.”

But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 18, 1941, The Times realized that it “ought to proceed with the puzzle,” the Sunday editor Lester Markel wrote at the time. In a grim but all too familiar world plagued by war, the prestigious newspaper realized that to provide its readers with a relatively mindless distraction was to provide them relief, if only temporarily. Margaret Farrar, who later became the paper’s first crossword editor, once wrote, “You can’t think of your troubles while solving a crossword …”

Many cruciverbalists would certainly relate to Farrar’s statement. In addition to aiding in temporarily forgetting one’s troubles, crosswords challenge the mind to think in novel ways. Clever clues often reveal the surprising diversity of a single word, or the pleasure of certain idioms when taken literally (“It’s on a roll”: SESAMESEED). What may seem obvious to one person can be entirely cryptic to another—a testament to how one’s experiences impact one’s worldview. Where my dad sees a verb, I may see a noun. Context is everything.

And yet some contexts tend to be favored more than others. Crossword submissions must be green-lighted by editors, “but one editor’s demerit is another solver’s lexicon,” puzzle constructor Natan Last wrote in The Atlantic. “Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism.”

Puzzles are created with their audience in mind; as a result, editors hold a significant amount of power regarding what can be considered culturally relevant. I’ll admit that I was not aware of such issues until recently. I had viewed crosswords as a fun—and addictive—distraction. And they most certainly are, but they are also a reflection of the cultural climate—one curated by a rather homogenous, select group of people.

In a letter addressed to Eric von Coelln, The Times’ Executive Director of Puzzles, Anna Shechtman, puzzle-creator and former assistant to Will Shortz, the newspaper’s crossword editor, writes in response to test-solver Claire Muscat’s resignation and Last’s Atlantic article:

“Not only was [Muscat] told that she was hired to check for content that might be offensive to female solvers,” Shechtman writes, “she was also asked not to offer advice or feedback outside of that identity-based purview…she was told that her “primary role” was to be a female censor and not, in other words, a multifaceted solver like the puzzle’s other (mostly male) employees.” The letter has since garnered hundreds of signatures.

Matt Gritzmacher, founder of the Substack newsletter “Daily Crossword Links,” where he provides all “the day’s crosswords in one place,” has kept track of puzzle creators’ demographics in an Excel spreadsheet. According to his data, a quarter of The Times’ crosswords were created by “women, non-binary, or gender non-conforming” folks in 2020. At The Atlantic, only 19% were. The New Yorker’s crossword editor, Liz Maynes-Aminzade, is the first female to inhabit the role at a major news outlet since Margaret Farrar in the mid-twentieth century.

Some may attribute these puzzling statistics to a lack of interest among female and gender non-conforming groups, but this inkling appears to be false. The Inkubator, which offers weekly crosswords created only by those who identify as female, provides a space for puzzles “that may not have a chance at mainstream publications due to feminist, political, or provocative content”—content which could easily be killed by editors. (MARIEKONDO and BELLHOOKS, for instance, have been deemed too obscure by some editors.)

Other inclusive outlets include Queer Qrosswords, which seeks to disrupt the heteronormative assumptions of many clues (“Husband’s spouse”: WIFE), and Women of Letters—founded by Patti Varol, also of The Inkubator—which offers a female-created and -edited crossword book in exchange for donations to organizations like Planned Parenthood and Girls Not Brides.

Men, too, are speaking up for greater representation in the CrossWorld, as it is lovingly referred to. At USA Today, whose crossword editor, Erik Agard, wore a tee-shirt that read “Publish More Women” to a crossword tournament, 69% of their puzzles in 2020 were created by women and gender non-conforming folks, according to Gritzmacher’s data. The tide seems to be turning, but there is still ample room for improvement.

The events of recent years have taught us about the importance of language. I am certainly more hyperaware of the words I use, and I posit that I am not alone. My love of French has rendered me especially attuned to the nuances of language and how one’s culture manifests, in part, in one’s speech. What are we supposed to make of the fact that it is la as opposed to le COVID, or that the word for doctor, médecin, is still always masculine? And which pronouns do gender-nonconforming French-speakers prefer, considering that il and elle are currently the only formally-accepted options? Needless to say, words carry weight.

But why didn’t I assign the same weight to the language used in crosswords? They are arguably an even more profound window into culture considering their play on words, historical references, and knowledge of what is en vogue today. For some reason, I did not view these puzzles through the same lens as I had other forms of media. Perhaps it was because the crossword was my escape from daily life; it was a form of meditation that allowed me to unplug, think critically, and be amused.

And crosswords can still be all of these things. It is unlikely that the grandfathers of the modern crossword puzzle maliciously tried to omit certain perspectives. Still, puzzles were created in an echo chamber of sorts. Up until recently, perhaps a gay or trans cruciverbalist would not have been able to enjoy a puzzle as much as I had. But pioneers like The Inkubator and Queer Qrosswords are happily disrupting the CrossWorld, spreading the joy to more people. The word-lovers who founded such outlets saw a gap where others—including myself—did not.

I still see crosswords as a fun vocabulary lesson and an exercise in questioning what we have been hardwired to believe. In two New Yorker puzzles from last year, “support staff” denoted CANE, and “Hot spot?” referred to EROGENOUS ZONE. Not only do such clues make me laugh or smile out of admiration for the creator’s cunning, but they force me to question how much of what I think and say results from habit rather than mindful, deliberate decisions.

“Crosswords defamiliarize the familiar,” writes The New Yorker’s Adrienne Raphel. “The idiosyncratic logic of a puzzle forces the brain to stop and undo its underlying assumptions. Each clue-and-answer pairing forces you to create a different kind of connection, which makes every word pop out afresh.”

Raphel eloquently articulates the joy of solving a crossword puzzle, which often results from the joy of discovering a new perspective through which to view a word, a phrase, or an idea. Shaking things up is an essential component of a crossword’s allure. Fostering greater inclusivity, then, is a natural extension of what a puzzle is meant to do.

I recently took advantage of The Inkubator’s free trial, which generously lasts for a couple months. Their most recent iteration contained all the hallmarks of a rewarding puzzle: difficult clues few will get right off the bat (“Malaysian state that’s home to George Town”: PENANG), adroit linguistic observations (“Substance that sounds like a mendacity”: LYE), and pop culture references that require some effort to remember (“Eldest Schuyler sister in ‘Hamilton’”: ANGELICA).

But much of the clues—a greater amount than most crosswords I’ve seen— focused on women. The answer to “Bell, really” was BRONTE, referring to the famed sisters’ pen names. STILLIRISE answered “Maya Angelou poem with ‘gifts that my ancestors gave.’” OBAMA resulted from “‘Becoming’ Michelle” rather than a clue related to her husband.

Crosswords will likely never disappear. Instead, one would expect them to morph and change with the times just as novels, movies, television shows, fashion trends, and even food do. The crossword shift may be somewhat late, but the recent efforts to promote a narrative that more accurately reflects this moment in history are a testament to the power words hold, and how they can be used to broaden the stories we hear and tell.

In the meantime, I will continue to indulge in my crossword addiction, forever partaking in its celebration of language. But now I will do so with a more discerning eye. And after the successful completion of a puzzle, I invariably feel like the answer to The Inkubator’s most recent 34 Across, “Maxine Hong Kingston’s genre-defying memoir”: THEWOMANWARRIOR.

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