Puzzles · Thoughts

Crosswords and Culture

Apart from being one of the most brilliant music composers and lyricists of the 20th century, Stephen Sondheim is also a game geek and a puzzle lover. Makes sense that someone who marries music and lyrics for a living would also have a penchant for fitting words into grids. Back in the day, he also wrote an article outlining the difference between crosswords in the US and the UK–while American crosswords appeal to an encyclopedic knowledge of trivia, what he calls “British-style” crosswords thrive in being cryptic and challenge the puzzle-solver to understand what the clue is pointing to. He expresses a preference for the British type which should not be a surprise either–cryptic crosswords are more poetic, since they are basically posing riddles for each entry.

Sondheim’s article is a beautiful example of how game design and culture go hand in hand; it also becomes richer the moment that we start looking at crosswords in other languages. Although I can  play words games both in English and Spanish, I prefer crosswords in Spanish to the famous series of The New York Times. First, because the kind of encyclopedic knowledge needed to solve the NYT crossword requires being steeped in American culture and history in a way that is not accessible to a foreigner. Second, the phonotactics of Spanish allow many ways to make words cross in interesting ways. Opening some of the crossword magazines in Spain is a joy – some crosswords don’t tell you how many letters each word has (crucigrama blanco), some puzzles use words broken down in their syllables (crucigrama silábico), some have themes that many of the clues refer to.

My favorite type of crossword is the autodefinido (arroword in English) where the clues of each entry are written in the cell that separates each word. Some cells need to display two clues (one for a horizontal word, one for a vertical), so they need to be extremely brief, two or three words maximum. The clues in this type of crossword usually thrive on vocabulary knowledge, since most of them are synonyms, as well as cultural knowledge, most often geography, with toponyms and demonyms being some of the most common.

Autodefinidos are fast and easy – after all, crosswords were casual games before we invented such term. Although autodefinidos are based on linguistic and cultural knowledge, they become accessible relatively fast. Each crossword book publisher has a certain preference for specific knowledge domains and vocabulary – the first time a puzzle asks you for three-letter words in Spanish that mean “Turkish officer” or “River of Switzerland”, the reference seems ridiculously obscure. But as you continue solving puzzles, you keep coming across these riddles, and you learn that the answers are “AGA” and “AAR” respectively.  For the designers, these words become little stitches to hold the crossword together, and the puzzle solver learns to identify them over time. Each magazine publisher has a set of esoteric words that characterize them.

Autodefinidos also have a surprising variety – apart from having the same typology as regular crosswords (figure out where the blank cells are, divide the words in syllables, thematic riddles), they also do wonders with their layout – some of them have honeycomb layouts where words can be spelled in lines or around a cell. Others combine the crossword with the cryptogram, so the cells for each word in the crossword follow serpentine patterns, and when you find all the definitions, the square displays a literary quote. Everything falls into place and it’s beautiful.

Designing crosswords requires a level of craft computers can facilitate; in the end, it is up to the ingenuity of the designers, who often go uncredited, to create a challenge to one’s knowledge and wits. Some designers like challenging players with hair-pulling riddles, while others provide enough scaffolding so they can complete the puzzle. The NYT crosswords are all about proving the solver is “smart”, and has access to a certain knowledge and education that is highly situated in American culture – and, more often than not, New York City culture. If the puzzle-solver is stuck, they had to buy the newspaper of the following day to find the answer, though these days it’s a matter of having a subscription to the crosswords themselves. In contrast, collections of autodefinidos help the solver expand their vocabulary and trivia knowledge by repeating definitions from puzzle to puzzle, and magazine to magazine; the answers are in the same issue, so that knowledge is accessible immediately. Thus crosswords and their design also partake of different social conventions and levels of privilege.