Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

How's Your Crosswordese?

With this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament just around the corner, there is no better time to consider that peculiar, vowel-heavy brand of English known as "crosswordese." Think you're a first-rate cruciverbalist? Quick: can you tell an anoa from an unau?

From February 27 to March 1, the nation's foremost crossword solvers will descend on the Brooklyn Marriott for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. If you've seen the documentary Wordplay, then you know the cast of characters, led off by beloved New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, who has organized the event for more than thirty years. This year, I'll be reporting on the Tournament for the Visual Thesaurus (and I've even been coaxed into competing), so keep an eye out for my live dispatches here on Word Routes.

As the competitors for the Tournament limber up their brains in advance of this year's showdown, they'll be making sure they have their "crosswordese" down cold. But as Erin McKean recently noted in the Boston Globe, the familiar stable of crossword words has been undergoing a transformation of late. Back in the '70s and '80s, crosswords appearing in the New York Times and elsewhere were often brimming with super-obscure, crossword-only words. Take anoa and unau: as the VT will tell you, the former is a "small buffalo of the Celebes having small straight horns," while the latter is a "relatively small fast-moving sloth" (who knew there were fast-moving sloths?). These aren't exactly creatures you're going to run into on a daily basis.

When Shortz took over the helm of the Times crossword in 1993, he set about banishing the anoa, the unau, and all of their kin. If you take a look at the crossword clue database on XWord Info, which covers the entirety of the Shortz Era, you'll see that the unau is now well and truly extinct in the Times puzzle. The anoa still creeps in every once in a while, though it hasn't appeared in a puzzle since 2004. (The anoa is endangered in real life too: according to Animal Info, there are fewer than 5,000 still roaming the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, formerly known as Celebes.)

In the place of such oddities, Shortz and likeminded puzzle constructors and editors have ushered in a new wave of crosswordese that is more in keeping with the times. Now instead of Indonesian buffalo you're much more likely to see eBay, iMac, or A-Rod (that's the nickname of New York Yankees shortstop Alexander Rodriguez, for anyone who hasn't been reading the recent steroid-laced headlines). And some obscure crossword words are now given much more straightforward clues: if the grid demands APAR, you're not going to see it clued as a "South American armadillo with three bands of bony plates" (as the VT defines apar). Rather, you can expect to find something like "On ___ with (equal to)," where the string of letters is broken down into the two-word phrase "a par."

This doesn't mean that the old crosswordese is entirely a thing of the past, however. On Rex Parker's crossword blog, he has posted a "Pantheon" of crossword words that are still encountered far too often in the Times puzzle, despite how infrequently they appear in typical non-crossword language use. There you'll find old standbys like amah (an Asian maid or nurse), oleo (another word for margarine), and Otoe (a Siouan Indian tribe). As fellow crossword blogger Amy Reynaldo told the Globe, "If it's in a mainstream dictionary, it has three or four letters, and it's at least half vowels, its continued appearance in crosswords is pretty well assured."

If you'd like to test your knowledge of crosswordese, check out the word list I created with many of the usual suspects. In the meantime, I'll be trying to remember the difference between a ewer and an etui...

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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