Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, July 12, 2021

As newspaper and magazine pagecounts shrink, the crossword puzzle is increasingly getting pushed out of its ink-and-paper home, much to fans’ dismay:

[New York Times Magazine editor] Gerald Marzorati said his team worked for months trying to find a way to squeeze in the regular crossword, a second word puzzle and a numbers puzzle like sudoku or KenKen. Shrinking the puzzles was impractical, he said.

“We would have had to make them so much smaller, it wouldn’t have worked,” he said.

The solution has been to swap puzzles between the print edition and the Web site week to week, depending on how much advertising comes in.

Even with the extreme squeeze for space, it’s puzzling (pun!) why something with such a devoted fanbase would get dropped. Until you realize just who the devoted are:

Dunn Miller, a 64-year-old librarian from Oakland, Calif., who was attending the National Puzzlers League convention in Baltimore last week, spoke of losing The Puzzler in terms usually reserved for the breakup of a favorite band, like the Beatles.

“It’s like, why are they murdering us?” she asked. “We’re losing one of our stars. It’s like if some great athlete, Dennis Eckersley, were told by the manager he had to leave early and he couldn’t play for anyone else.”…

“You get the pleasure of solving each clue, so there’s that ‘aha’ moment over and over — it’s like having multiple orgasms,” she said.

Basically, the word-grid attracts 64-year-old librarians who get off on knowing the answer to 32 Across. Doubtless, this older demographic is also the last remaining reliable customer of the print edition, but perhaps is not valuable enough to fete. (Aside: Citing Dennis Eckersley as a “some great athlete”, when he’s been retired from baseball for years, hints at a certain level of disconnectedness with current events, at least in the sports world — ironic, if you consider that a crossword devotee like Ms. Miller would also read the rest of the newspaper.)

I’m a long way away from my sixties, and I like doing a crossword now and again. But it’s a love-hate relationship, because the way these syndicated puzzles are structured make me wonder if they’re at all aimed at a non-AARP audience. Every crossword I’ve ever done has always included clues that are hopelessly old-fashioned; I’ve got to believe they’re reliable go-to words that are short and easy to build into a puzzle grid.

For instance: “Oleo” frequently shows up as a Down or Across answer for something like “butter substitute”. Hello? Who the hell calls margarine “oleo” anymore — didn’t that technical name leave popular usage decades ago? Clearly, you’d have to know a bit of esoteric history to get this, and/or have been around in the 1950s or ’60s. Other examples are “Ida” in answer to “___ Lupino” (an actress who, along with her career, expired decades ago); “SST” for “Condcorde et al” (for a jet plane that hasn’t flown in years); and various “spelling variations” that might have been in use years ago, if ever. Someone younger than me probably reads this and thinks that the author is working from a playbook constructed in the ’70s. Do a few days’ worth of crosswords and the repetitiveness of these stock hints becomes clear, and comes off as the puzzle writer re-using the same bag of tricks.

Which is fine, except that it underlines the hollowness of solving this puzzler in the first place. There’s no way to “learn” a lot of these answers, other than by recognizing their inclusion on previous crosswords — they exist practically nowhere else other than within the confines of the crossword-clue universe. Whatever satisfaction you might get out of completely filling out each box is blunted by knowing that many of the clues are nothing but insider lingo. Not accessible to a wider audience, and therefore an isolated pursuit.

How to open up this closed crossword garden? I know a lot of papers already sell sponsorships of their features section, including the puzzles. Why not go a step further and inject the grid with product-placement clues? Companies like Pepsi and Sony probably would love to buy square-by-square space like that. Although, given the existing elderly user base, I’m sure the highest bidders for these placements will end up being V-I-A-G-R-A and D-E-P-E-N-D-S — defining results that’ll only drive off younger puzzlers…

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 07/12/2021 06:45 PM
Category: Creative, Publishing
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  1. CROSSWORD-CLUE DOOM…

    Given that I’ve previously bitched about the cluelessness of the typical crossword-puzzle clues, imagine my surprise to come across this peculiar one this morning:
    44-ACROSS: Game my dad refused to install on our computer in 1993 because it took …

    Trackback by Population Statistic — 11/20/2009 @ 9:11 AM

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