Beyond the crossword
A look into how the words get chosen for the New York Times Crossword.
If we were to go by the New York Times Crossword, Lake ERIE would be the most dazzling body of water on Earth. Mining ORE would be the most lucrative business venture. According to xwordinfo.com, ERIE is the third most popular word in the New York Times Crossword. It has appeared over 1,350 times. ORE is seventh, with over 1,200 appearances.
ORE and ERIE are examples of crosswordese, words that appear often in crossword puzzles but rarely in day-to-day conversation. One of the reasons they appear so often is because they are extremely useful in crossword construction. The alternating pattern of vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant makes for easy filling of tricky corners or ending stacks.
For a long time, the main tools of a crossword constructor were graph paper and a dictionary. Among today’s constructors, though, it’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t use software such as Crossfire or Crossword Compiler to create their puzzles. These programs introduced a new tool that automatically fills in an area of a crossword puzzle using a word list. By using autofill, a constructor’s job is made easier. But as a result, crosswordese is stuck in the pre-Internet era.
Most construction programs come with preinstalled word lists, but they also allow the user to create their own, or to import lists downloaded from the internet. There are a number of free and paid word lists floating around, ranging in size from a few hundred entries to several hundred thousand. Every constructor I spoke to mentioned these word lists were a huge boon when they were first starting out.
The higher a word is scored in a list, the more likely the software is to use it. The internet word lists tend to place a higher weight on words that have appeared in published puzzles before, so crosswordese like ORE and ERIE tends to appear disproportionately often. Every constructor has a different methodology for scoring their personal word list, the same way a painter may prefer one brush or pigment over another.
A number of constructors said they felt that crossword puzzles were art, or at the very least a form of self-expression. Anybody can download a word list, but how they use it is what makes it special, and a good word list cannot replace the skill and feedback necessary to make a great puzzle.
Some constructors set aside time just for sharpening the scoring of their word lists. For example, Amanda Rafkin, associate puzzle and games editor at Andrews McMeel Universal, told me that she sometimes spent two or three hours just rescoring words in her word list.
Matt Ginsberg, who has published 50 puzzles in The New York Times, told me he used a machine learning algorithm to score his word list, and constantly scraped websites such as Wikipedia and online dictionaries to find words to add to his collection. However, Mr. Ginsberg also mentioned that this style of word list management could sometimes make his puzzles feel “synthetic,” and that he envied constructors who used language that was more personal to them.
Constructors will also prune their word lists to keep out words they don’t want in their puzzles.
“There are a lot of rivers, and I don’t know them all, even if they have a lot of good letters in them,” said Kate Hawkins, who has had seven puzzles published in The New York Times. “If I would be displeased to see it in a puzzle, I take it out. If I think it’s offensive, I take it out. If I think something is just meh, I take it out.”
Ms. Hawkins likes to add what she calls “utility language” into her word list. “I really like signs and instructions in the world around you,” she said, “words and phrases that you see, and they’re ubiquitous, they’re not in word lists.” An example she gave me was her puzzle with the phrase LANE CLOSED, which she added to her word list after seeing it on a road sign.
A number of constructors also told me that they would remove a word if they thought an editor wouldn’t accept a puzzle for including it. Ross Trudeau, who has published 40 puzzles in The New York Times, told me that since the list of words that editors find acceptable is only so long, many constructors’ word lists are actually very similar.
“Any new three-, four- or five-letter word is gold” and gets added to his word list immediately, Mr. Trudeau said. A recent example he gave was PSAKI, as in the White House press secretary Jen PSAKI. He gives extra weight to new jargon, film titles and especially anything that he thinks will generate interesting theme or revealer entries.
“As a human, your tastes change, it all depends on how the pieces stack up as a whole,” said Sam Ezersky, a New York Times digital puzzle editor and a constructor. “A word list isn’t going to tell you that there are two really hard answers crossing each other.”
When Mr. Ezersky is stuck in a tricky part of a grid he is constructing, he uses answers such as AC TO DC or ATOMIC GAS. Crunchy phrases like these might not appear in a normal word list, but with some clever cluing, they can work well to glue together some smoother fill.
Editors like Mr. Ezerky are looking for those moments.
“We can tell when some human, meticulous thought went into a puzzle,” he said. “We love when it truly feels like a craft, something that a human designed.”
There are resources for constructors looking to diversify their word lists, such as the Expanded Crossword Name Database. The database was created by Erica Hsiung Wojcik, a Skidmore College professor and a crossword constructor, as a way to increase representation in word lists after she noticed white men were overrepresented in crossword grids.
Some database inclusions are things that seemed like obvious puzzle words to Ms. Wojcik. For example, the ERHU is a two-stringed instrument with Chinese roots with a spelling that lends itself to being crosswordese, but at the time of writing, it has never appeared in the New York Times Crossword. Meanwhile, ED ASNER, an actor best known for playing Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran in the 1970s, has appeared in the New York Times crossword 41 times. His last name? One hundred and fifty-one times.