Friday, October 28, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I love crossword puzzles—even those elaborate punny ones—and I treat myself to the New York Times Sunday one, which usually takes me the better part of a week to finish, since I work on it only during commercials while I watch television, or during the parts of shows that are really boring, like sports reports.

Will Shortz, the all-knowing
editor of the NYT puzzles
But I hate to run out of puzzles, so the last time I was in a big bookstore I bought a compilation of 100 Sunday-size puzzles, just to keep it on hand. When I bought it I did not realize that the first few puzzles were historic: the first four date from World War Two, and then they proceed chronologically up to 1990. I guess anything after that is considered "current."

Trying to complete the early puzzles (I'm working them in order) has been challenging and interesting—and shows how much popular culture has changed over the intervening years. This is my seat-of-the-pants analysis, but so far I've made a number of observations:

--the puzzles from the war years are filled with references to geography in the Pacific and military terms, as well as some associated clues: for example, Native Hindu in the British Army, (I got that one), or Nazi submarine base in Belgium.

--there is a pervading assumption that the puzzle-doer (puzzler?) is well educated, since the clues include many references to plays from various countries, foreign languages, science, geography and history. Take spirit worshipped in Thailand, or pertaining to the armpit (huh? There's a word for that?).

--then there are the clues that completely mystify me—and there are lots of them—like arrogators (no, it's not a Japanese alligator—shame on you), or the gadids of the title.* Or hakenkreuz.

Sure, there are answers in the back of the book, and on one page the editor admits that the puzzle "may require a visit or two to an unabridged dictionary to complete." Gee, thanks. I for one believe that using a dictionary is cheating. I'm going to fill in only those words that I know or can tease out based on what other letters I've filled in. But I'll admit that gadids stumped me, so I turned to my trusty dictionary (one not much younger than the puzzle)—and it wasn't there. I had to look for it (gasp) on the Internet to find the answer, and I'm still left wondering how on earth I could have known that unless I was an ichthyologist. I ask you, is that fair?

But looking at these puzzles raised for me a bigger question: have our education and our cultural standards changed so much in the fifty-plus years since the early puzzles appeared? Or were the puzzles targeted at a rarified few who could have a hope of finishing any one of them? It appears that the creators assumed a breadth of knowledge that is, by current standards, staggering. (I feel the same way when confronted with British puzzles, where every other clue seems to be an inside joke that you will understand only if you attended Oxford or Cambridge in the 1920s.)

Or are we just getting dumber and/or more impatient? Over the past few years we have watched mobile devices proliferate—and now our communications have to be condensed into 140 words. Gone are the elegant quotations of yesteryear; language is reduced to a codes (IMO).

I wish I had statistics on who does the more complex crossword puzzles these days. They still appear in newspapers (where newspapers survive—can you do a puzzle in an on-screen version?), so someone must want them there. But even so, the clues that challenge one's mind and memory seem to be dwindling down; there are more references to television characters than to Greek gods. I know, I know—these are intended as entertainment, not a cultural pop quiz. But it still makes me sad. What we've gained in speed, we've lost in subtlety and nuance and richness in our language.

Do you enjoy crossword puzzles?

*In case you really, really want to know, according to, a gadid is "A fish of the family Gadidae, which includes the cods and the hakes." And Hakenkreuz is the German word for a swastika.



Camille Minichino said...

Love this, Sheila! It's a great look at our culture through puzzling. I don't like the trend toward sports and away from "current events" as in the old days, and I do take it as a sign of dumbing down.

It takes me most of the week for the Sunday NY Times, too. I buy the NY Times engagement calendar every year and do the puzzle for the week while I'm on hold on the phone!

I must confess, however, that I do use a dictionary when I can't finish the puzzle otherwise. I count it as research!

JJM said...

Great post. And, you're right, there's a dumbing down trend, here as elsewhere.

It's the constant references to pop culture that finally weaned me off crosswords, at least the ones popular in the U.S. Once I discovered the sort found in the (London) Times, though, I just never looked back. Talk about tricky ...

Alas, the Times puzzle is behind a paywall, so I've had to resort to buying the puzzles in book form via Expensive, but doable as an occasional indulgence.--Mario

Sheila said...

JJM, I love the London Times puzzles! Again, they assume a fairly broad knowledge of a lot of things, not to mention puns. I think they make you use a different part of your brain.

Camille, sometimes if I'm stuck on a word, I leave it and come back to it later (sometimes much later) and have a "duh!" moment.

Nancy said...

I did not know what a gadid is, but now I hope to remember it for further use - perhaps in Scrabble. All of your points are well taken and well written.

Anonymous said...

I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is

required to get set up? I'm assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
I'm not very

web savvy so I'm not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice

would be greatly appreciated. Thank you
Here is my page -

Anonymous said...

Along with the whole thing that

seems to be developing within this particular area, a significant percentage of perspectives are

very stimulating. Nonetheless, I appologize, because I can not
give credence to your

whole strategy, all be it stimulating none the

less. It appears to everybody that your commentary

are not completely justified and in

reality you are yourself not

totally confident of your point. In any case I did appreciate
reading through it.
my website >

Anonymous said...

I’d need to test with you here. Which is not something I usually do!
I get pleasure from studying a submit that can make people think.
Additionally, thanks for

permitting me to comment!
Also visit my homepage ... acidosis

Anonymous said...

hi!,I like your writing so much! share we communicate more about your post on AOL?
I need a specialist on this area to solve my problem.
May be that's you! Looking forward to see you.
Also visit my web site ::

Anonymous said...

Hi there would you mind letting me know which web host you're

working with? I've loaded your blog in 3 different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot
faster then most. Can you suggest a good

web hosting provider at a fair price? Thanks a lot, I appreciate it!
Here is my web page ; pht-Wiki.tsn.At

Anonymous said...

I think other web-site proprietors should take this website
as an model, very clean

and great user friendly style and design, let alone the

content. You're an expert in this topic!
Visit my webpage ; Fort Lauderdale Hotel Rooms

Anonymous said...

Hiya, I am really glad I have found this information.
Nowadays bloggers publish just

about gossips and web and this is really annoying. A good

website with interesting content, that is what I need. Thank you for

keeping this web-site, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters?


find it.
Feel free to visit my web site :: office max

Anonymous said...

Definitely, what a splendid blog and revealing posts, I definitely will bookmark your site.
Best Regards!
Here is my webpage canadian Student loan consolidation

Anonymous said...

Appreciating the hard work you put into your

website and detailed information you provide. It's good to come

across a blog every once in a while that isn't the same old

information. Great read! I've saved your site and I'm including your

RSS feeds to my Google account.
Here is my page ;

Anonymous said...

This is very interesting, You're a very skilled blogger. I have joined your rss feed and

look forward to seeking more of your excellent post. Also, I've shared

your website in my social networks!
My webpage ::

Anonymous said...

We are a bunch of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.

Your website provided us with valuable info to work

on. You've done an impressive job and our entire

neighborhood will likely be grateful to


my web site ::

Anonymous said...

wonderful post, very informative. I wonder why
the other specialists of

this sector don't notice this. You should continue your writing. I'm sure,

you've a huge readers' base already!
My site

Anonymous said...

It’s really a nice and useful piece of info. I’m glad that you
shared this

helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this.
Thank you for

Check out my homepage ;

Anonymous said...

You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but
I find this matter to be actually

something which I think I would never understand.

It seems too complex and extremely broad for

me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try
to get the hang of it!
Feel free to visit my page

Anonymous said...

Magnificent website. Lots of useful

info here. I’m sending it to some friends ans also sharing
in delicious. And naturally, thanks for your sweat!
Also visit my weblog -

Anonymous said...

Hi, i feel that i noticed you visited my blog so i

got here to “return the choose”.I am attempting to in

finding things to improve my website!I guess its

adequate to make use of some of your ideas!!
Here is my website

Anonymous said...

You actually make it seem so easy with your
presentation but I find this topic to be really

something that I think I would never understand.
It seems too complicated and very broad for

me. I am looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the
hang of it!

Here is my weblog:

Anonymous said...

I am really enjoying the theme/design of your blog.
Do you ever run into any

web browser compatibility problems? A

few of my blog readers have complained about my blog not working correctly

in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any solutions to
help fix this problem?

Here is my web page -

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post however I was

wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic?
I'd be very thankful if you

could elaborate a little bit more. Thank you!

Here is my website ...

Anonymous said...

Can I simply say what a aid to seek out someone who

really is aware of what theyre talking about on the internet.

undoubtedly know the best way to bring an issue to

light and make it important. More individuals must learn this

and perceive this aspect of the story. I cant imagine youre not more

fashionable because you definitely have the gift.

Look into my weblog -

Anonymous said...

Great post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am

impressed! Extremely helpful info particularly the

remaining part :) I take care of such

information much. I was looking for this certain info

for a long time. Thanks and best of luck.

My web page HTTP://

Anonymous said...

Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied
on the video to make your point. You

clearly know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting

videos to your weblog when you could be giving us something informative to read?

Here is my web-site ...

Anonymous said...

What i do not understood is if truth be told how you're

not actually a lot more well-appreciated than you might be now. You're very intelligent.
You understand therefore considerably with regards to this matter, made

in my opinion consider it from so many numerous angles.
Its like women and men don't seem to be

fascinated until it is one thing to accomplish with Girl gaga! Your personal stuffs outstanding. Always care for it up!

my web blog -

Anonymous said...

Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and I find It really useful &
it helped

me out a lot. I hope to give something back and help others
like you aided me.

My homepage

Anonymous said...

Whats up this is kind of of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or
if you have to manually code with HTML. I'm starting a blog soon but have

no coding expertise so I wanted to get guidance from someone with

experience. Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Stop by my website;

Anonymous said...

Wonderful site. Plenty of useful

info here. I’m sending it to some friends ans also sharing in delicious.
And obviously, thanks for your effort!

Feel free to surf to my website -

Anonymous said...

My wife and i were now thankful Michael could round up

his web research via the ideas he got out of your blog. It's not at all simplistic to simply be offering tips and

tricks which usually others may have been making money from. So we know we've got the writer

to appreciate for that. All of the illustrations

you have made, the easy blog menu, the friendships your site assist to foster -

everything incredible, and it is leading our son in addition to the family believe that that

matter is interesting, which is certainly

truly indispensable. Thanks for all the pieces!

My web page

Anonymous said...

very good post, i actually love this website, keep on it

my web blog