The print appearance of a new crossword series is cause for celebration. So three cheers for the New Yorker, which includes a weekly puzzle as of t
The print appearance of a new crossword series is cause for celebration. So three cheers for the New Yorker, which includes a weekly puzzle as of today. For me, this was also an opportunity to talk technical with the magazine’s puzzles and games editor, Liz Maynes-Aminzade.
When democracy came to South Africa, the Guardian setter Araucaria set a puzzle including many of the lesser lights of the anti-apartheid movement and later remarked: “These were people I thought Guardian readers should know.” What is the equivalent for the New Yorker?
I think a lot of the New Yorker’s constructors would identify with that. They often use their grids to spotlight interesting people who haven’t quite gotten their due.
A crossword can only give you so much context about a person, of course. But if you finish a great puzzle that has, say, Pauli MURRAY or HILMA AF KLINT as a focal point – recent entries in grids by Anna Shechtman and Wyna Liu, respectively – maybe your curiosity will be piqued, even if you hadn’t heard of the person. That’s also why our online puzzles include a featured answer and a related New Yorker article on the completion screen, as a sort of invitation to learn more.
Does it require more technical ingenuity to make sure the crossing letters help a solver who is less familiar with an entry?
Yes, I think it’s a tough thing to pull off. Erik Agard is a virtuoso at this; his New Yorker crosswords often feature names or references that might not be known to all our readers, but that will still be easy-ish for them to solve.
A good example is his puzzle from last year that had NTOZAKE SHANGE as the marquee entry. If you look at the crossings, they’re all familiar (without being boring) words and phrases – NARRATOR, BLIZZARDS, TETE A TETE – and there are no proper nouns, or any of the occult crosswordese that might trip up a solver.
I find it easier as a solver to pick out a Wasp-y surname as I have a good sense of where the vowels and consonants are going to be. Is there a corollary in construction? As Chiwetel Ejiofor, the central entry in a recent Monday puzzle, told this paper: “I was a kid with a funny name.”
This turns out to be a pretty complicated question. Here’s what Natan Last, who made the CHIWETEL EJIOFOR puzzle, had to say: “Since it’s probably the case that most of the words in the grid will still be phonotactically English, introducing non-English patterning can disrupt the sequencing of vowels and consonants.” For instance, if you wanted to put HASAN MINHAJ in a grid, you’d need to be careful that the J didn’t also fall at the end of the crossing word, since very few English words end in J.
So, in short, it’s harder. But Natan also pointed out that phonotactic inconvenience isn’t the only reason you don’t see more non-western loanwords in American grids. Since English is a consonant-heavy language, vowel-heavy words are useful to constructors as “release valves” – which explains the ubiquity of OREOs and EPEEs. But it doesn’t explain why you see ALEE more often than ALOO; that’s more likely chalked up to cultural bias.
We talk here a lot about how Word of the Year lists often include terms that are only known to those who are extremely online. How do you assess how gettable might be a piece of Twitter jargon? Testing?
Our crossword editors – myself, Nick Henriquez, and Andy Kravis – are all, I think, varying degrees of online. The same is probably true of our constructors. It’s helpful to have that spread when we’re trying to determine how in-the-language a newer word or phrase is.
I will say, personally, that there’s a type of extremely online speak that turns me into a curmudgeon. But Twitter is a crucible of language change, which is inherently interesting, and we want our puzzles to engage with that. So we welcome online slang, in moderation.
Finally, what is the intended shelf life of a New Yorker puzzle?
We hope every puzzle will be timeless! Seriously, though, we do try to future-proof our puzzles as much as possible. This involves smaller precautions (swapping in specific dates instead of “recently” or “this year”) and larger ones (reining in references to fads and phrases that seem destined for oblivion).
On the other hand, we want New Yorker crosswords to feel topical, and our editing and fact-checking process was designed to accommodate that, through a relatively quick turnaround. I’d hope that our puzzles will still be solvable 15 years from now – even if that future solver sees them as somewhat quaint artefacts of the 2020s.
Many thanks to Liz; the puzzle archive is here. I asked Liz if she had a suggestion for our Healing Music Recorded in 2020-21 to Accompany a Solve or Even Listen to; she replied: “Lianne La Havas’s Home Concert checks all these boxes – healing, recorded in isolation, and great as the background to a solve, or as the main event.”
The Shipping Forecast Puzzle Book by Alan Connor, which is partly but not predominantly cryptic, can be ordered from the Guardian Bookshop.
Here is a collection of all our explainers, interviews and other helpful bits and bobs.