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How Word Lists Help — or Hurt — Crossword Puzzles | tnewst.com Press "Enter" to skip to content

How Word Lists Help — or Hurt — Crossword Puzzles

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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.


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