1. Who’s in the Crossword?
The New York Times crossword has been criticized for being too old, too white, and too male. They publish more puzzles by men than by women, their clues can be a bit outdated (and even offensive), and a few editors at the top can use their power to maintain the status quo.
As a puzzle lover, I wanted to better understand who is being referenced in crossword puzzles — an unexplored piece of this puzzle. I teamed up with The Pudding to see if the people in crossword clues and answers represent the people who could be solving them. To measure this, we looked specifically at clues and answers that include the names of real people.
But before we go too deep, let’s get a feel for an actual crossword puzzle. Here’s a mini, made up of clues and answers from real crosswords we analyzed. It is solvable with either set of clues; one exclusively made of non-Hispanic white people, the other of minoritized racial groups.
Non-Hispanic white people
Minoritized racial groups
(Minoritized racial groups)
With the exact same answers, we made two very different puzzle experiences. Maybe you found one set of clues easier to solve, or more in line with the people you know about. Maybe you used some of each. Everyone has a different set of cultural touch points, and therefore a different solving experience. For too long, puzzles have catered to a narrow subset.
Crosswords tell us something about what we think is worth knowing. A puzzle that subtly promotes the idea that white men are the standard, the people everyone should know about, is a problem for all of us (yes, even the white men).
A less homogenous puzzle would be an opportunity for many solvers to expand their worldviews. But more importantly, if you’re a solver like me, it’s meaningful to see yourself and your experiences in the puzzle, especially if they are often unseen or underappreciated. When I see black women engineers, or powerful athletes, or queer couples centered in a puzzle, it makes me feel seen and signifcant. It’s a reminder that I can be the standard, not just the deviant.
How we did it
We sampled tens of thousands of clues across decades and publications from Saul Pwanson’s crossword corpus. Then, we manually labeled each person’s race and gender after researching them. For the purpose of this analysis, we classified people using US Census’s categories. We believe that the lines between races and genders are social constructs, and their precise delineations are moving targets without unanimous agreement. We recognize that this is an imperfect method, but it does not change our finding: crossword puzzles are dominated by men of European descent, reserving little space for everyone else. See a more detailed methodology.
Representation in Major Crosswords
Ratio of men vs. women and non-Hispanic whites vs. minoritized racial groups found in clues and answers of major crossword publications.
Race & Ethnicity
USA Today is the one publication that actually over-represents historically underrepresented groups. What’s going on there?
As of December 2019, The USA Today puzzle is edited by Erik Agard, a 27-year old crossword champ who told me, “bringing some balance on the representation front is something I actively try to do.” A prominent crossword blogger called USA Today’s puzzle “the most interesting, innovative, and provocative daily crossword” out right now. Let’s take a look at how USA Today, and other publications, are taking a puzzle that’s been called too old, too white, too male, and changing it up.
2. Modernizing old names
These are the people most commonly referenced in NYT crossword answers.
Most common answer
Josip Broz Tito
John Wesley Snyder
Many are short and easy to fit in the grid. These names aren’t going anywhere because of how crosswords are constructed. Short words with frequently used letters (known as crosswordese) are perfect for filling the nooks and crannies of a puzzle. But some publications are choosing to modernize these answers with new clues, changing who the answer refers to.
Let’s look at a popular in-answer name; AVA. At three letters, it is the shortest allowed length, and has two highly usable vowels. Since the 1940s, it has almost always been clued to refer to Ava Gardner, a movie star whose career spanned from 1941 to 1986. We’re starting to see some publications, especially USA Today and Universal, modernize this name, often cluing it as Ava DuVernay, an award-winning film director (the first black woman to direct a live-action film earning $100 million).
Use of the answer AVA across all publications
AVA DuVernay in 2020
AVA Gardner in 2020
3. Redefining “common knowledge”
These are the people most commonly referenced in NYT crossword clues.
"Fortunes of ___" by Scott.
"To ___ thy soul with crosses"—Spenser.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
"The old ___ changeth."—Tennyson.
"The rule of ___ too much."—Milton.
Answering the clue relies on knowledge about that person or their work. You likely know many of these dead white people (William Shakespeare, George Washington, Julius Caesar) because they're considered “common knowledge.” Choosing to include people like this is practical and easy because it capitalizes on their widespread recognition.
Instead of taking the worn out path, leaning on and reinforcing this common knowledge, USA Today — with Agard at the helm — often takes a different approach. For example, in September of 2020, USA Today clued ONT, which has been clued hundreds of times as something like “Canadian prov.”, like this:
Agard instead wanted to bring in the experiences of transgender people (if a transgender person seeks testosterone hormone therapy, they might describe that regimen as being “on T.”) USA Today’s puzzle is full of clues like this, that subvert the norm and bring new people and experiences to the center. Agard credits this to his diverse team of puzzle constructors, who bring a variety of perspectives and ideas.
There is plenty of opportunity to make both our common knowledge and puzzles less homogenous, even with simple, everyday answers.
211 clues for the answer POEM
Clues that mention a person
185 clues for the answer MIT
Clues that mention a person
Crosswords don’t have to be stodgy and out of touch. They can reflect who we are and what we care about. They can teach us about people and things we don’t know about, but maybe should.
One way to get there is for more people to make and solve crosswords.
- If you’re interested in making crosswords, Erik Agard (editor of USA Today’s puzzle) helps run a Facebook group for underrepresented crossword constructors to get tips and mentorship.
- If you’re a new solver (or want to get more confident), here’s a guide from the New York Times on how to get started.
- Check out publications like Queer Qrosswords, Inkubator, and Women of Letters that intentionally center minoritized groups.