“Desi of Desilu Productions”

“Ball go-with?”

“Ricardo player”

“Ball carrier, at times”

Yes, those are all actual crossword clues whose answer is “Arnaz.” As in Desi Arnaz, star of the 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, forever immortalized in crosswords — and, as a result, familiar to people like me, who have never seen an episode of the show.

For years, I’d been casually solving crossword puzzles, mostly from newspapers, and growing increasingly irritated and tired of the clues. I didn’t know anything about how crosswords were made, but it was obvious from the ones I was solving that their target audience was a lot older than me, and that their pop culture references, for the most part, ended during my childhood or adolescence.

The past seemed to stretch endlessly into the present in the world of crosswords. The last name of someone who appeared on the TV show The Waltons was something I was supposed to know. “Indian Prime Minister” might be “Indira” and a Ford auto was just as likely to be an Edsel as any current model. As a commenter on the Diary of a Crossword Fiend blog wrote last week, “In crossworld the past is still with us. MAE WEST is an actress and LINCOLN is still… president.”

Then I found out about Ben Tausig, a constructor (as they are called in the world of crosswords) publishing puzzles in alt-weeklies. I got his book, Crosswords from the Underground and felt like I’d finally found someone who got me. With the demise of so many alt-weeklies, Tausig (a New York-based ethnomusicologist who is currently recovering from COVID-19) now edits his own subscription crossword, one dedicated largely to bringing more under-represented voices to the fore and to more culturally diverse cluing. The puzzles generally tend to be a lot of fun too. I especially like it when the constructors get autobiographical in them.

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one feeling tired of crossword clues that were, well, tired. Over the last few years, new outlets and constructors have come on the scene, with fresher clues and new perspectives. And a pair of those constructors, sisters Lita and Tass Williams, live in Dartmouth. Their debut puzzle appeared March 12 in the Inkubator, which publishes “crossword puzzles by women — cis women, trans women, & woman-aligned constructors.”

The Universal crossword the next day was by the Williams sisters too, and they’ve got another Inkubator on the way and some dozen puzzles out for submission.

Now, of course, is a great time to do some crosswords, especially if you are stuck at home. (There are links on where to find puzzles at the end of this story.) But it’s also a great time apart from the pandemic, because crosswords have been undergoing an evolution — maybe even a mini-revolution — over the last few years.

I emailed the Williams sisters and asked for an interview, and Lita responded, saying Tass asked her to speak on behalf of both of them.

They were born in Ontario, and the family moved to Nova Scotia 50 years ago, when Lita was 7 and Tass was 10. (Their dad was in the Air Force.) Williams says the whole family was into puzzles. “My father and mother both loved them, and my brother too. My sister was more of a Cryptoquote queen.”

Lita started solving easy puzzles when she was 10 or 11, and worked her way up to the New York Times crossword. Now, she says she spends “a good percentage of my day making and solving crosswords. It’s become a little bit of an obsession of mine.”

A few years back, after some four decades of solving puzzles, Williams decided to take a shot at making puzzles herself. “I thought, how hard could it be? And I determined it was quite hard!” she says. “The early attempts were abysmal.”

So she joined a Facebook group dedicated to connecting constructors from under-represented groups with mentors, to ease their way to publication, and says that made a huge difference.

Most crosswords have a theme. (Spoiler for Lita and Tass Williams’ first puzzle in the next paragraph, so if you don’t want to see it, skip ahead.)

The Williams’ sisters debut was called “Fish out of Water” and featured names of fish (perch, trout, eel, and gar) crossing or touching blue-shaded squares with bodies of water (river, pond, lake, and ocean). The words that are not part of the theme are called the fill. “Tass is the theme queen,” Williams says. “She handles the theming duties, then passes it on to me. We iron out what we want to put in the puzzle, and then I build the grid and do the majority of the fill. She has input on it as well, and then we clue it together.”

In recent months, the idea that the clues and answers in crossword puzzles are culturally significant has finally started to gain more widespread traction. Crossword editors look for clues and answers that will be accessible to a general audience, and not too ephemeral. On the one hand, that makes sense. I may be familiar with Nepalese fermented greens, but I’d hardly expect most North American puzzle-solvers to know what they are called.

I could not care less about US college football, so all those clues about the Big Ten and PAC-something and Rose Bowl wins mean nothing to me. (I have learned that the UCLA teams are called the Bruins though.)

It’s not big deal if I don’t know the names of US college football teams or brands of frozen foods in American supermarkets. But other assumptions can be more troubling.

As in so many other fields, the question becomes this: whose reality is represented as shared? Whose history is common knowledge?

On March 28, crossword blogger Jeff Chen complained about a New York Times puzzle by Erik Agard — one of the new wave of constructors freshening up crosswords. Specifically, he wasn’t happy with 37 across: “Native name for the Iroquois Confederacy.” Answer: “Haudenosaunee.” Chen imagined what would happen if the word was included on the gameshow Wheel of Fortune.

Then, he somehow made things worse.

Unrelated to the Chen blog, Ben Tausig used the AVC crossword Twitter feed to write about the importance of diversity in crosswords, and how refusing to run clues considered ephemeral excludes marginalized groups:

Language is famously ideological. All of us — rich or poor, right or left — routinely say more than we mean. Our words teem with unintended layers. We all strive to speak in ways that make us look wise and ethical. But our words invariably betray us. Code words emerge to justify particular actions. But soon enough it becomes clear when code words enjoy a perverse symbiotic relationship with specific actions. For example, certain code words are used to justify racist policies. Crosswords are small in that they are light entertainment. But they are big in that many people solve them (and care about them as a hobby), and that they are a significant market. And editorially, they are governed by some code words that people have noticed are ideological. One of those words is “ephemeral.” Words judged to be ephemeral are thus often deemed no good for a puzzle grid. This is ideological in that it tends to exclude knowledge that highlights women, people of color, and other socially marginal groups.

In a Wired story by Peter Rubin, Queer Qrosswords founder Nate Cardin talks about his motivation for launching the site (which publishes “LGBTQ+ crosswords by LGBTQ+ creators to benefit LGBTQ+ charities”).

“I kept feeling like I was an intruder,” he says. “Even in major publications it would have clues like ‘Husband’s spouse’: WIFE. ‘Towels his and ____’: HERS. I always felt that I had to put part of myself aside and pretend that I was straight in order to solve these as efficiently as possible.”

You can see the evolution of social attitudes and acceptable terms by looking at crossword clues too. Take the word “Kohl.” Search a database of New York Times crossword clues and answers and you’ll see these clues:

“Oriental mascara” (1957)

“Arabian mascara” (1958)

“Oriental cosmetic” (1968)

But from 1996 on, it’s clued almost exclusively with reference to one-time German chancellor Helmut Kohl:

“Schmidt’s successor” (1998)

“Germany reunifier” (2003)

“1980s-‘90s German leader Helmut” (2013)

The Atlantic recently ran a piece by Natan Last, himself a crossword constructor, called “The hidden bigotry of crosswords.” In the article, Last gives concrete examples of how the editorial process weeds out diverse clues:

When editors review a puzzle submission, they mark it up — minus signs next to obscurities or variant spellings, check marks next to lively vocabulary. But one editor’s demerit is another solver’s lexicon. Constructors constantly argue with editors that their culture is puzzle-worthy, only to hear feedback greased by bias, and occasionally outright sexism or racism. (Publications are anonymized in the editor feedback that follows.) MARIE KONDO wouldn’t be familiar enough “to most solvers, especially with that unusual last name.” GAY EROTICA is an “envelope-pusher that risks solver reactions.” (According to XWord Info, a blog that tracks crossword statistics, EROTICA has appeared in the New York Times puzzle, as one example, more than 40 times since 1950.) BLACK GIRLS ROCK “might elicit unfavorable responses.” FLAVOR FLAV, in a puzzle I wrote, earned a minus sign.

A 2018 paper published in the journal Journalism Practice backs up this idea. The paper, by University of Texas journalism professor Shane M. Graber, looks at representation in New York Times crosswords between 1993 and 2015. Graber argues the puzzles “tend to skew toward white (Western), male, and heterosexual clues and answers in one of the world’s most important newspapers. In doing so, the discourse of the crosswords appear [sic] to stereotype, omit, further marginalize, trivialize, underrepresent, and render as child-like many marginalized people.”

Graber looked at over 8,000 clues and tabulated some of the results. He writes:

For those clues and answers that dealt specifically with sexuality, all of those in this sample adhered to a traditional heterosexual binary in which people were definitively heterosexual and either unambiguously masculine or feminine… In two crossword puzzle clues, an “S.U.V. ‘chauffeur,’ maybe” was a “Mom” (August 24, 2004; 8 Down), and a “Soccer or hockey follower” also was “mom (July 28, 2010, 10 Down)… In relegating women to chauffeurs and soccer moms, they are trivialized as one-dimensional people with singular roles.

I asked Lita Williams why representation in crosswords is important. She said:

Because they’re so ubiquitous. You open the paper and see a crossword. You don’t really look at the byline or think about the aspect of women trying to get a voice and put their spin on things in a crossword… The great predominance of puzzles are written by men, and that’s still status quo.

I mentioned some of the kinds of stock clues I’m tired of. Reaching for an example, I said, “It might be like Broncos quarterback or something…”

“Elway,” she said immediately and laughed.

Ideology aside, Williams is excited to finally be making puzzles in an era marked by less formality.

“They’ve become much fresher, even in the last five years. There’s much less crosswordese like “Elway” and “eta.” There’s a lot more natural language too like, “Don’t go there,” “I say so,” or “I agree with you.” You can play fast and loose with language, which is lovely. It makes for a much nicer puzzle to solve.

“I love names, I like places, I like pop culture, music. I’m a big fan. I’d rather see that than “molecule” or a standard word. I like natural language and pop culture. I think they’re a great inclusion in puzzles.”

Where to find puzzles

Over at the Diary of a Crossword Fiend blog, you’ll find a link marked “Today’s Puzzles.” It offers puzzles for download for every day of the week. Some you can solve on your computer, others are designed to work with an app. A few also provide pdf versions to print. Most of these crosswords are free but some, like the New York Times, require a subscription. (You can subscribe to the puzzle separately from the paper, and it has its own app.)

The AVC crossword is subscription-based. You can sign up here. Puzzles arrive in your inbox weekly. There is also a free trial available.

The Inkubator, co-founded by Laura Braunstein and Tracy Bennett, is also available by subscription and also has a free trial. Puzzles come every two weeks, but there are often bonus crosswords as well.

The most popular app for solving crosswords is Across Lite. It’s available for Apple devices and Windows. I have an Android, and I use an app called Robo Crosswords, which you can download from Google Play.

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Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. An obnoxious clue still all too common is “speedy horse” for the answer “arab”.

  2. It was interesting to see two NS constructors when I got my Inkubator puzzle a few weeks ago, and seeing an Examiner article on them was a nice surprise. Well summarized on the state of representation, too.