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All the Clues That Are Fit to Solve: The New York Times Crossword Puzzle

crossword puzzle and pencil - author image

When I was younger, I watched in awe as my grandmother completed the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle … in ink. She perched at the end of the dining room table with her blue ballpoint pen, the paper folded into quarters, and her Entemann’s crumb donut on a white china plate. Between observing both this practice and her nightly viewing of Jeopardy!, I came to believe that she was quite intelligent. At seven, I had not yet worked the puzzle, but I knew preternaturally that these two components must connote intelligence. This anecdote illustrates the larger cultural perception about the connection between intelligence and the New York Times crossword puzzle, as well as the broader importance of puzzles and trivia in American society. Crosswords are typically relegated to the categories of trivia and games; however, with the New York Times crossword being ingrained in our popular culture through film, television, and other artifacts, the puzzle is no longer a trivial text, but evolves into something more significant.

The New York Times crossword, through its association with the “paper of record” in the United States, has become the gold standard of American crossword puzzles. Through an examination of the puzzle’s folklore, cultural references, and evolution, one finds that the puzzle has come to support the Times’ lofty status in American news publications. Hundreds of books, calendars, and other ephemera have been published using the puzzles, creating a secondary line of products outside the traditional confines of the newspaper. Sometimes a text, like the crossword puzzle, might not be universally employed or consulted, but it possesses a universal meaning that goes beyond simple engagement. Branding, in this case, is not simply limited to a recognized font or logo, but rather it is shaped through a type of customer, which is clearly visible through the crossword puzzle. The New York Times crossword has taken on characteristics of other important works in American cultural studies, including a form of fandom, contemporary relevance, and entrance into the cultural zeitgeist.

Existing scholarship about the New York Times crossword puzzle is limited, in part because those outside the crossword puzzle community perceive it as a trivial topic. This situation is common among subjects widely deemed ephemeral, which fields such as American Studies and Popular Culture Studies have turned to their advantage. Studying the familiar, or the so-called trivial, to extract serious cultural theories is a hallmark of these disciplines. As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich observes in her article on performing research on Martha Ballard for A Midwife’s Tale, Ballard’s diaries places an importance on trivial chores that allows contemporary scholars to gain a comprehensive understanding of the time period and the roles that women played within it.1 Trivia can allow future generations to better understand a civilization and its values.

Few scholars have examined the crossword puzzle in historical or cultural ways. The principal work is Coral Amende’s The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World’s Most Popular Pastime. Amende herself is a New York Times puzzle constructor and the puzzle editor for Los Angeles Magazine.2 The book is both a well-researched chronology, steeped in game study and puzzle scholarship, as well as a guide to puzzle construction, which serves puzzle practitioners as well as cultural scholars. Most of the supporting scholarship for my argument deals with the issues of trivia and fandom. Episodes of television and other primary sources illustrate how the puzzle has entered the zeitgeist. I also relied on primary sources from the pages of the New York Times, particularly in articles about the retirements and deaths of former editors.

History of Trivia, Word Games, and the Crossword Puzzle

Games and trivia have their roots in the human experience with the ancient Greeks and Romans. The word “trivia” derives from the Latin trivium, which refers to a spot where three roads converge and townspeople gathered to exchange gossip.3 Early civilizations, such as the Greeks, enjoyed word squares, also known as acrostics, even including them in dramatic plays and translations of the Bible.[^4] These puzzles continued to be enjoyed for centuries, and one of the world’s most celebrated solvers and inventors was British logician and mathematician Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, who scattered puzzles throughout his famous Alice series. According to current New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, word squares were the most popular puzzles from about 1870 until the crossword puzzle debuted in 1913. First appearing on December 21, 1913 in the New York World’s “Fun” section, crossword puzzles have been more popular than any other indoor game since the 1920s.4 The puzzle was so popular that submissions overwhelmed the crossword’s editor, Arthur Wynne. He hired Margaret Petherbridge as an editorial assistant, and she would later standardize puzzle construction.5 Petherbridge’s experience with the World would greatly inform her work at the Times as the first crossword editor. Her creation of standards for the New York Times puzzle lends heavily to the puzzle’s status. Without high standards and the overall standardization of its clues and format, the puzzle could not act as a universal cultural touchstone beyond just other crossword puzzles.

Trivia and games have moments in which they take on increased significance, usually during periods of cultural or social turmoil. English writer C. Northcote Parkinson created his Law of Triviality, which supposed that the unimportant usually pushes out the important in our lives because the trivial is easier to process.6 This concept might explain why games and puzzles increase in popularity during times of distress, such as in wars and economic recession. Here again, American Studies is well positioned to consider these ideas, since it has long considered the “trivial” a potentially rich source of overlooked cultural significance. For example, Monopoly grew in popularity during the Great Depression, because it provided an inexpensive source of entertainment. Trivial Pursuit was a phenomenon for the same reason during the recession of the early 1980s. Game experts see the popularity of the strategy game Settlers of Catan during the Great Recession of 2008 as another phase of this trend.7 Other games and puzzles, such as the Times crossword puzzle, transcend any initial historical context. While some argue that modern society minimizes the importance of cultural knowledge, and thus trivializes the “survival value of being culturally aware,” there are many examples in American popular culture that place great capital on cultural awareness. Examples include: Jeopardy!, Trivial Pursuit, People magazine, the cultural literacies theory of E.D. Hirsch, and in turn, the New York Times crossword puzzle.8 What changes is the requisite content knowledge and context for each generation’s conception of cultural literacy, which the history of the New York Times crossword puzzle illustrates.

The New York Times crossword emerged in a time of great turmoil for the United States. For decades, the Times resisted printing a crossword puzzle in its hallowed pages, feeling the inclusion of any game was undignified. The same line of reasoning explains the paper’s staunch refusal to incorporate comics. The owner of the paper in the 1920s, Arthur Sulzberger, actually enjoyed solving puzzles, which were considered a fad at the time, but even his affinity for the grids could not convince the editors to waste precious column inches for this “frivolous” game. The Japanese navy was more persuasive.

After the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, it was inevitable that the United States would enter World War II. The conflict had been a reality in Europe and Asia for years, and terrifying stories of air raids and bombings filled radio broadcasts and newspaper pages. Overseas, crosswords were already playing an important role in the European war effort. There is photographic evidence that Londoners used crossword puzzles to pass the time underground during the Blitz. Skilled crossword solvers in Britain were recruited to help decipher the German Enigma codes.9 In France, puzzles were temporarily banned, as officials were concerned that codes could be implanted in the clues and grids.10

Fearing the same lengthy and stressful air raids in the United States, the New York Times printed its first crossword puzzle in February 1942. This action is in line with President Franklin Roosevelt’s pragmatic “green light letter” in response to Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ question about the status of major league baseball. Here, President Roosevelt stated that public entertainment supported the war effort rather than distracting from it, and therefore should be preserved.11 The inclusion of the puzzle in the Times would therefore not be considered a trivial notion during a time of national peril, but instead a way to help relieve tension among the war-minded public. The puzzle here is culturally therapeutic, and soldiers also found the puzzle to be a comfort. In a May 1942 letter to the editor, Privates Henry F. Holbrook and Laurence D. Perrine thanked the Times for allowing them to compose a puzzle, “especially since both of us are ardent Times puzzle-fans [sic].” Notice that this letter came only three months after the crossword’s initial appearance, suggesting that the puzzle’s popularity was almost instantaneous. The two soldiers received numerous fan letters about their puzzle, and though they had hoped to construct a second puzzle, the two men were off to new camps and officers training.12

Sulzberger, a fan of the World puzzle, hired Margaret Farrar (nee Petherbridge) to edit his puzzle, instructing her to standardize the game specifically for the Times. Her puzzle career was already well established outside of New York World. In 1924, she published her first crossword book, which was also the first offering from future publishing giant Simon & Schuster. The book was a huge success, selling 350,000 copies, and requests for the book overwhelmed the publisher. She eventually published 133 collections of crossword puzzles.13 The Times puzzle was to be “dignified,” focusing on current events and cultural topics featured in the paper itself, while avoiding delicate or obscene concepts. Sulzberger felt that the puzzles should be solvable within twenty minutes, the approximate duration of the average New Yorker’s subway commute.14 It was also an activity that could easily occupy people during drills and air raids.

Since that first Sunday offering, the New York Times crossword has emerged as the gold standard for newspaper amusements, mostly thanks to Farrar’s work to create an upscale and standardized puzzle. Part of this goal was achieved through developing a go-to group of constructors. This band was very diverse: it included both a member of the New York Philharmonic and state prison inmates.15 By the 1950s, the puzzle was featured in the daily paper, and in the 1960s, the puzzle became nationally syndicated.16 Syndication turned the puzzle from a New York-centric phenomenon into a national trend. Moreover, the puzzle’s high cultural standards attract a more elite audience, while other standards keep the “average” solver in mind. The puzzle finds a wide audience without being lowbrow.

The four editors of the New York Times crossword have heavily influenced how the puzzle is solved and how it is culturally perceived. The British game tradition of “cryptics” highly influenced Margaret Farrar’s puzzle style, which involves more word play and other sorts of word games such as anagrams.17 Farrar retired in 1969, and regular puzzle contributor and city desk member Will Weng moved into the editor’s chair.18 His style was a stark departure from Farrar’s. He filled his puzzles with absurd clues, and he encouraged more creative themes, tired of the trite motifs that Farrar had favored. In 1977, Dr. Eugene T. Maleska succeeded Weng following Weng’s retirement. Dr. Maleska’s puzzles were even more controversial among dedicated puzzlers, as his style leaned, too far for some, towards the academic, including intellectual humor and almost arcane references, which required a lot from his contributors.19 Upon Dr. Maleska’s death in 1993, current editor Will Shortz took the desk, and it can be argued that Shortz is the most famous of all four editors. He feels his early tenure was rocky, as he had no living mentor to assist in his succession, but he used his degree in enigmatology and experience as the National Public Radio (NPR) puzzle master to develop his own puzzle style.20 Shortz notes that he feels his puzzle and wordplay style most closely reflects Farrar’s. Each editor provided his or her own special touch to the puzzle, but certain aspects and traditions, such as wordplay, abbreviations, and foreign language markers have remained over time.

Culture of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle: Fandom and the Secret Code

Over the last 75 years, the puzzle has grown in popularity, developing a fandom-like following that employs certain folk practices. This fandom differs however in its methods of initiation in that one must not only understand techniques for completing and constructing the puzzle, but also possess a well-rounded knowledge of mass culture and trivia. In his fundamental work Textual Poachers, cultural scholar Henry Jenkins outlines the many ways that television fans take ownership over their favorite texts, particularly Star Trek. Jenkins’ larger theories on fandom and how fan communities are created are applicable to the New York Times crossword.21 Rather than simply acting as passive consumers of media, crossword fans are also often producers, referred to as “produsers.” Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian J. Longhurst’s 1998 study of fans, Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination, created a trajectory of fandom that reinforces Jenkins’ theories.22 As consumers of media become more involved in their texts, they move from consumer to enthusiast to fan, and finally, to producer of their own related texts.23 Crossword puzzle fans often easily move from consumers (solvers) to producers as they learn to construct puzzles. All three male editors began their careers as contributors to the puzzle before becoming editors, which is the ultimate producer. Many other regular contributors, such as Coral Amende, are the puzzle editors at other national papers, re-enforcing the status of the Times puzzle as the pinnacle of the craft. When the editors at other papers become mere contributors to the Times puzzle, a hierarchy develops in the crossword community with the Times at the top.

For many fans, the importance of the fan culture is not limited to an emotional attachment to the text, but also to the social aspects of the fan community. Jenkins points to a variety of ways that social networks evolve through fan culture, including through “filk,”24 fan videos, and fan fiction. These forms originate with a text and draw new meaning from relationships and themes within, sometimes decontextualizing the characters or situations.25 While crossword fans do not have character relationships from which to draw, some do write songs about the puzzle and its solvers. The documentary film Wordplay featured solver Victor Fleming’s song “If You Don’t Come Across, I’m Gonna Be Down,” which he performed at the “American Crossword Idol” talent show at the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.26

In fandoms, trivia is used as a litmus test of true “fan” status, separating devoted fans from casual consumers. Henry Jenkins claims trivia is an integral part of the act of “textual poaching,” although he refers to trivia as “fan culture.” In other words, understanding the intricacies and nuances of a fictional universe or canon (Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who) allows fans to fully immerse themselves in the text, but also keep “lesser” fans out. That which is seen as trivia in mainstream culture functions as cultural capital in a fan community. In Nathan Hunt’s study of the magazine SFX’s coverage of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, he discovered that trivia in fandom allows fans to both illustrate dominance over a text and to identify insiders and outsiders.27 Understanding how to decipher clues and solve the Times puzzle works in much the same way, helping to distinguish the indoctrinated from the novice in the puzzle community, although crossword fans seem eager to help newer solvers navigate these norms.

The history of the New York Times crossword puzzle has numerous parallels to other fan cultures. The puzzle has a fan culture all its own, although most puzzlers would not refer to themselves as such. Like other fandoms, early communication among Times puzzle-solvers was via mail, and they met in person at conventions and competitions, such as the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut. The community of solvers then moved to the Internet. One of the most popular solvers online is Rex Parker, who runs the blog Rex Parker Does the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle. Each day, he works the puzzle and provides a detailed explanation of his answers and the theme. This site allows the entrenched fan to understand new methods and cultural references, while the new solver learns the basic language of the community. The folk practices within the puzzle, especially informal learning of the “code,” place the puzzle in a pivotal place within American culture.

The 2006 documentary Wordplay investigates the world of New York Times crossword puzzle fans. Former President Bill Clinton, documentarian Ken Burns, and folk duo Indigo Girls (Amy Ray and Emily Saliers) are interviewed in the film, in addition to other celebrities and fanatical solvers. In these interviews, the ritual of puzzle solving and the fandom surrounding it become most apparent. A lengthy discussion of the right writing implement (pen is preferred) moves into a conversation on the importance of folding the paper correctly (into quarters). Through these interviews, it is evident that the ritual of puzzle completion is as important as the puzzle itself. President Clinton enjoys puzzles that contain a lot of wordplay, claiming that the problem-solving skills he acquired doing the puzzle helped him through some difficult presidential decisions. Former Baltimore Oriole and New York Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, who graduated from Stanford, enjoys working the puzzle in the dugout, citing the importance of his “crossword stance.” Ken Burns likens the puzzle to “a vice,” and claims that he always completes the puzzle in ink, a sign of expertise in the crossword world. The Indigo Girls joke that being mentioned in the puzzle was the pinnacle of their careers and very flattering.

The narrative of Wordplay revolves around the 28^th^ Annual Stamford Crossword Puzzle Tournament (2005), which Shortz organizes himself. Not surprisingly, the tournament uses the New York Times crossword. As a result, the puzzle is perceived as the standard of excellence in the competitive American crossword circuit. The winners of the tournament not only possess the knowledge to solve crossword puzzles in general, but also the secrets to how the puzzle is constructed and efficiently completed. The competitors are diverse, except in their passion for the puzzle. The social aspect of the competition is just as important as the actual solving, with friendships evolving over years of competition.

The New York Times crossword puzzle straddles the line between popular and folk cultures through the combination of informal learning, traditional cultural knowledge, and mass distribution. These folk practices within the realm of popular culture provide another framework in which to view the puzzle and its solvers. One must understand the unique “language” of the puzzle to effectively solve it, but one must also possess an understanding of both highbrow and lowbrow mass culture to answer the clues.

While some perceive the puzzle to be universally challenging, the well-initiated know that the puzzle increases in difficulty throughout the week, excluding Sunday. The Monday puzzle is reliably the easiest to solve, using clearer wordplay, shorter answers, and contemporary references. Many of the top solvers can solve a Monday puzzle within two or three minutes, but it is constructed to adhere to Farrar’s “subway length” solving time for the average person. Saturday is the most difficult puzzle, incorporating challenging wordplay, long answers (up to 15 blocks), and obscure cultural terms. The Sunday puzzle, which many mistakenly consider the most difficult due to its size, is actually on par with a Thursday puzzle and can contain more elaborate themes due to the larger 23 x 23 grid, as opposed to the Monday through Saturday grid of 15 x 15.

Wordplay, and the ability to spot and solve it, is a necessary skill in solving the puzzle. Farrar’s and Shortz’s puzzles tend to include the type of wordplay imported from Britain’s “cryptic crosswords,” whereas former editors Weng and Maleska used more creative wordplay that did not stem directly from the British tradition. Anagrams, another popular type of wordplay, can be signaled with words such as “around” (a word inside another word), “mixed up,” or another synonym. If the solver is to play around with the spelling of a word (sometimes called “removal” or “reversal”), they may see clues that use terms like “left out,” “nearly,” or even “headless,” if the first letter should be removed. Here are some examples from a British-style cryptic crossword:

Headless man with time for insect (3) – ANT (Ant is AN (man without its first letter) with “T” (abbreviation for time))

Left out of void business establishment, dealing with money (4) – BANK (Bank (business establishment, dealing with money), which is BLANK (void) without the letter “L” (left))28

There are many signals that solvers can look for to spot an instance of wordplay. Most prevalent in the Times is the question mark at the end of the clue. For example: “How to use excess cotton or silk?” answers as MAKEANIGHTYOFIT.29 In other situations, there are signal words, such as a non-English word to show that the answer will be in that same language. For example: “Sp. Misses” answers as SRTAS, as the “sp.” indicates a Spanish word, and the abbreviated form alludes to the answer being shortened as well.30 The wordplay in the Times is not quite as complicated and typically stems from the puzzle’s theme.

If wordplay is executed through the theme, the title of the puzzle can provide a clue, although only Sunday puzzles tend to have a published title. In Coral Amende’s debut puzzle “O Captain, My Captain,” the theme answers relate to a variety of fictional captains. Eight total clues involve some sort of captain. “Captain Hook” answers as PANSNEMISIS; “Captain Kirk” solves as SPOCKSSUPERIOR; and “Captain Nemo” translates to SCIFISUBMARINER. The size of the Sunday puzzle makes it more hospitable to themes, but they can be found in any daily puzzle.31 The difficulty or mere existence of the theme can contribute to the editor’s decision about which day the puzzle should be published.

Staying within traditional parameters, puzzle constructors can use the grid in creative ways, which keeps solvers on their toes. “Schrödinger puzzles,” or puzzles with multiple correct outcomes that usually pair related clues, is a popular creative motif. The most famous example of a Schrödinger puzzle is from Election Day 1996, which ended the presidential race between President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole. The clue for 39-Across was “Lead story in tomorrow’s paper (!), with 43-Across.” The answer to 43-Across was ELECTED, so the answer to the first clue had to be one of the candidates. Solvers across the country were flummoxed, believing that constructor Jeremiah Ferrell had either jumped the gun in declaring a winner, or that he would look quite silly on Wednesday morning when his prediction was incorrect. In fact, Ferrell had created a puzzle in which both CLINTON and BOBDOLE were correct answers and fit into the same grid. Shortz spent the next few days responding to angry solvers who felt the puzzle breeched the established code.32 Their frustration reflects their faith in a near-sacred internal code, and that breaching said code is akin to heresy, if not trickery, and compromises the status and standards of the puzzle. Examples like this illustrate the creative possibilities of the New York Times grid.

Editor Will Shortz reflects news and cultural topics from the paper in the puzzle, and as a result, the puzzle’s content remains fluid and relevant, and solvers must keep up with news and popular culture. This policy does not guarantee that all new cultural phenomena will appear in the puzzle, but words and phrases that facilitate successful puzzle construction have greater odds of being used. For instance, in the Tuesday, December 10, 2013 puzzle, the 45-Across clue was “Band with the 2007 #1 album We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank,” with an answer of MODESTMOUSE.33 This alternative rock band first hit the mainstream charts with 2003’s “Float On,” and the numerous vowels make it an attractive puzzle component. Other notable contemporary inclusions are rapper Dr. Dre, the CSI franchise, and even the mail-order acne medication Proactiv. The unique combinations of letters in these phrases make these popular. Additionally, some answers have remained while their clues have evolved to reflect cultural change. In the late 1990s, actress Nia Long was a frequent fixture in the puzzle due to her popularity in films like The Best Man. However, after the release of 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, writer and comedienne Nia Vardolos became a household name, and now it is just as probable to find both women as clues leading to the answer “Nia.”

Perhaps the most controversial cultural references that to be added to the puzzle are those referencing rap and hip-hop culture. Shortz defends his acceptance of these terms: “Rap and hip-hop culture in general is an increasingly important part of life. And so it should have an increasing role in the crossword.”34 As journalist Joe Coscarelli notes in his analysis of rap references in the puzzle, gangster rap was becoming more mainstream as Will Shortz began his tenure as editor in 1993. In February 1994, Shortz included his first rap reference: “Noted rapper” = ICET. Ice-T remains a puzzle fixture after his turn as an actor on the popular TV drama Law and Order: SVU. Some rap references have replaced more arcane clues, such as in the case of DRAKE (actor / rapper replacing the historical Sir Francis) and NAS (rapper replacing the television show Emerald Point N.A.S.).35 The Kardashian clan, which includes rapper Kanye West, has invaded the puzzle over the last ten years. Between 2011 and 2016, the family has been mentioned in the puzzle 12 times.36 While the Kardashians seem to have staying power, other youth references proved to be fleeting as in the case of The Jersey Shore’s Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi. Her unique nickname lends itself to use in the puzzle, and she appeared four times, but Shortz has noted in interviews that her time may be up as the MTV reality show has left the airwaves.37

The stereotypical New York Times readership appears reluctant to let this culture seep into its beloved institutions. The stereotypes of the intellectual NPR crowd tend to overlap heavily with those of the New York Times’ readership. In June 2015, NPR listeners protested and threatened to withhold donations when Kim Kardashian was a guest on the popular weekend quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Shortz is unfazed by such reactions. “I got a letter within those first couple of months from someone who rejected the modern cultural references and said, ‘you’re trying to appeal to young solvers, and there’s no way they’ll ever solve the Times crossword.’ I’m glad to have proven him wrong.”38 According to Shortz’s data, the average age of the Times puzzle solver has dropped fifteen years to around forty years old.39 As younger puzzle constructors submit their own work, the cultural references will logically continue to skew younger.

The reverse of this trend is also evident, requiring younger solvers to remain aware of older references that are staples in the puzzle. For example, although The Andy Griffith Show’s popularity peaked almost 50 years ago, Ron Howard’s character, Opie, is frequently referenced in the puzzle. The show is considered a classic, and it remains widely available through both syndication and subscription services such as Netflix. That cultural presence allows “Opie” to continue to work as an answer, whereas an obscure program that is less available and unseen for decades, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., would not easily support the puzzle’s practice and structure among contemporary solvers. The 1997 Peter Fonda vehicle Ulee’s Gold is another popular answer, but a strange reference in the puzzle, as the film has not remained popular long-term. It is often used because of its unique combination of vowels, a notion that itself has become part of popular culture. The fan culture surrounding the crossword puzzle reinforces who is “in” and “out” with these more obscure, puzzle-friendly references.

The Cultural Presence of the Puzzle: Perceptions of Intelligence

Fandom alone cannot imbue a cultural item with importance, but paired with a broader cultural relevance, the New York Times ascended to a new level. In popular culture at large, the puzzle suggests intelligence and even a form of elite entertainment. This concept is evidenced through a variety of popular culture examples. An early, theater-based reference appears in the song “Crossword Puzzle” from the 1977 musical review Starting Here, Starting Now. The song features a female character bemoaning a lost love while she attempts to fill out the Sunday New York Times puzzle, which they used to complete together:

I’m sitting here doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, somehow the words won’t come.
I am staring at squares, but my eyes never focus and my mind’s feeling strangely numb. What’s a five-letter word meaning … Here’s an example, two down: “A Peruvian poison dart.”
Why, when Hecky and me used to breeze through the puzzle on Sundays, the answer would leap in my … “Harte-beest.” That’s a gnu. G-N-U. boo-boopy doo. 40

The wordplay in the song is parallel to the Weng-style intellectual wordplay that appeared in the puzzle at the time. Later in the song, she refers to herself as a Phi Beta Kappa, and she cannot understand why she is encountering so much trouble with the puzzle. She perceives herself as an intelligent person, but her lovesickness makes the entire world difficult to navigate.

Television programs often use this formula to reinforce the idea that a specific character is more intelligent than others. On The Golden Girls (1985-1992, NBC), substitute teacher Dorothy (Bea Arthur) is often seen working on a crossword puzzle, which is an activity her roommates and mother do not find enjoyable. On The Simpsons (1989-present, Fox) episode “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” daughter Lisa begins competing in crossword competitions, and in an illustration of her father’s idiocy, Homer bets against her.41 The documentary Wordplay inspired the episode, and constructor Merle Reagle and Will Shortz make cameos, immortalized in yellow among the Simpson’s jaundiced population.42

On the political drama The West Wing (1999-2006, NBC), showrunner Aaron Sorkin uses the crossword on multiple occasions to indirectly characterize President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry (John Spencer). In the pilot episode, Leo is doing the puzzle over breakfast, and he claims to have found a mistake involving the name of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s name is spelled differently from source to source, but Leo feels he has the authority to correct the Times:

17-across is wrong…you’re spelling his name wrong. What’s my name? My name doesn’t matter. I’m just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I’m telling you that I’ve met the name twice, and I’ve recommended a preemptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how…they hang up on me every time.43

This interaction positions Leo as an intelligent man who is serious about anything he chooses to pursue, including his morning puzzle. In a third season episode, Sorkin uses a similar device to provide a window into the relationship between President Jed Bartlet and his wife, Abigail (Stockard Channing). As the First Lady dresses for her White House birthday gala, President Bartlet solves the puzzle to pass the time. The interchange between the Bartlets provides valuable insight into the couple’s dynamics:

JED: “Laissez-faire doctrine,” fifteen letters.
ABBEY: Social Darwinism.
JED: No, that’s not the answer, see, because social Darwinism isn’t a doctrine. It’s a force of nature. The answer is libertarianism.
ABBEY: I’m going to be ready in two minutes.
JED: Take your time.
ABBEY: Passive aggression is not going to get me out the door any faster.
JED: Booboo, I gave up on getting you out the door in the late seventies. Plus, it’s your birthday. You’re old, and you don’t move around that fast.
ABBEY: Libertarianism has fourteen letters, not fifteen.
JED: I know, so I’m shading in the extra box.

In contrast to Leo, President Bartlet is relaxing with his puzzle, rather than getting worked up about it. Leo is unable to divorce himself from his work, but President Bartlet makes the puzzle a fun and calm activity with his wife. He is so relaxed about it that he is OK with scratching out those pesky extra boxes.44 Throughout the show, we note that the Bartlets can get easily swept up in their lives as President and First Lady, but they are more adept than Leo at stepping back and evaluating what is important. The puzzle’s reputation is so ingrained that it can be easily used as a device in indirect characterization.

Based on some interesting evidence, it is perhaps President Bartlet’s past life as an economics professor that gives him an advantage on the puzzle. Will Shortz has come to the conclusion that some of the best solvers are those who are either mathematically or musically inclined, citing their unique reasoning skills and their ability to spot patterns.45 Therefore, while a certain type of intelligence is needed to work the puzzle, it is not always the type of intelligence most expect. Other studies, including that conducted by Glück, Bischof, and Siebenhüner in 2012, have found that even children perceive crossword puzzle solvers as more intelligent.46 These ideas point to why the New York Times crossword is universally seen as a sign of cleverness.

The CW drama Supernatural (2005-present), which revolves around brothers Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki & Jensen Ackles), who hunt down various ghosts and demons, also uses this trope. In the episode “Free to Be You and Me,” Sam is at a bar and completes the Saturday New York Times crossword, the most difficult puzzle of the week. A bartender who is romantically interested in Sam takes this as an indication of Sam’s intelligence and continues her pursuit.47

The puzzle was a major part of a storyline on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). On this program, Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor/Bob Saget), a New York architect, tells his children the story of how he came to meet their mother through his misadventures with his four best friends. One of Ted’s friends, Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), seems to know how to weasel his way into any situation, and in the episode “Robots Versus Wrestlers,” he and the others find themselves at a high society cocktail party. The pseudo-intellectual Ted is thrilled when he discovers that one of the guests is Will Shortz, and Ted is burning to ask Shortz about the use of Ulee’s Gold in the puzzles. This piece of puzzle subculture becomes fodder for the puzzle reference on the show. Ted suspects it is due to the combination of vowels, and in an amusing cameo, Shortz confirms Ted’s hypothesis.48 The presence of Shortz, among other guests such as journalist Arianna Huffington and director Peter Bogdonovitch, populates the party with intellectuals, while the rest of Ted’s friends’ hostile disinterest in the puzzle signals their more low-brow tastes, illustrated further in this episode with their desire to attend a robot versus human wrestling match.

Brooklyn 99 (2013-2018, Fox and 2018- present, NBC), a cop sitcom set in New York, also uses the crossword to distinguish highbrow characters from lowbrow. Detective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), who likes to appear intellectually disengaged, dates a fellow detective, the brainy Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero). In the 2015 episode entitled “The Mattress,” Jake and Amy discuss their relationship with their buttoned-up and intellectual commander, Captain Ray Holt (Andre Braugher). Amy admits that she almost ended their relationship when she discovered that Jake was unfamiliar with Will Shortz. Captain Holt is flabbergasted that anyone could be unaware of Shortz, and this interchange positions Amy and Captain Holt in positions of intellectual superiority over Jake.49 A second episode, “The Puzzle Master,” incorporates the New York Times crossword more deeply into the plot when Jake and Amy must solve a set of arsons connected to a well-known puzzle author. Will Shortz has a cameo as a rival crossword puzzle author, which is a nod to his sense of humor about the puzzle’s position in popular culture.50

Examples of public perception of the Times’ status are not limited to storytelling and characterization. In his 2009 book Everything but the Coffee, Americanist Bryant Simon makes an important connection between Starbucks and the New York Times in terms of public perception as elite institutions. In looking to connect with what Simon calls “the right people,” Starbucks sought ways to brand themselves as the highbrow coffee shop. They sold USA Today to their customers for a few years, but because the paper had the perception of being “the McPaper,” Starbucks felt that by switching to the New York Times, the “educated class,” who had money to spend on things like $4 coffees would associate Starbucks with the same ideals as the Times.[^52] The Times is seen as well-established and of the cultured, educated, middle and upper class, and therefore the puzzle is seen in the same light.

In the documentary Wordplay, comedian Jon Stewart discusses the importance of the puzzle as the standard, stating: “I’ll solve a USA Today in a hotel, but I don’t feel good about myself after.” In his analogy, Stewart likens the inferior USA Today puzzle to extra-marital relations in a hotel or motel room. While overblown for comedic effect, the sentiment is clear. The newer USA Today contrasts itself with the Times in every possible way. Large graphics with bold colors make it universally easy to understand, and it publishes news in small, bite-sized chunks, much like Twitter and its 280-character limit. Detractors disparage USA Today as the “McPaper,” the fast-food equivalent of journalism. Tasty, perhaps, but cheap, unwholesome, and strictly for the “unwashed masses.” It was in competition with the Times and the Wall Street Journal in a late 20^th^ century contest to crown a truly national newspaper. Each of the three still competes for the title, even as local papers lose much of their daily salience across the country. In contrast to USA Today, the New York Times is classy, pricier, and considered part of the culturally elite. Subway riders project specific images of themselves based on the newspaper they carry as they course through the underground tunnels of the train from Penn Station down to the Financial District. In fact, being able to read the Times with one hand while strap-hanging on the subway is part of any self-respecting New Yorker’s identity.

In its 70-year history, the New York Times crossword puzzle has emerged as the standard-bearer, creating a unique fan culture and integrating itself in the culture at large. The puzzle is held to this higher esteem through the Times’ reputation, but in a twist unimagined prior to 1942, the crossword also contributes to the paper’s august reputation. In the universe of word and trivia games, the New York Times crossword is the established leader of trends in puzzles. Outside this community, it is a sign of intelligence and intellect, more so even than an SAT score or GPA to the average person. Through its association with the New York Times, those who complete the puzzle are thought to be smarter and more elite than other solvers. No other puzzle following in the United States enjoys a set of fan cultures and folk practice, setting the Times puzzle apart. Thinking back to my grandmother, introduced at the start of this article, I now know that the crossword puzzle and a daily dose of Jeopardy! are not the only indicators of intelligence; but I am also sure that I was not wrong in my assumption about my grandmother and that with a few extra years, Maureen McGee could have given those folks at the Stamford Tournament a run for their money. This realization demonstrates that the puzzle functions in an austere and thoughtful way, acting as a litmus test for intellectual capacity and a marker of the same. Across many boundaries, in a highly dispersed yet unifying way, the crossword puzzle delivers what matters so much to the New York Times: a sense of intelligent substance that shows the fun of being smart. At the same time, the paper’s high level of repute shores up the puzzle’s trust factor. In a true sense, the puzzle and the newspaper reify what matters so much to the New York Times and its puzzle-loving public.


Abercrombie, Nicholas and Brian J. Longhurst. Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 1998.

Alfanso, Fernando III. “This GIF explains the most clever crossword puzzle in history.” The Daily Dot, February 13, 2013. (

Amende, Coral. “O Captain, My Captain.” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25. Ed. Will Shortz. New York: Random House, 1999.

Amende, Coral. The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World’s Most Popular Pastime. New York: Berkley Books, 2001.

Bazer, Gerald and Steven Culbertson. “When FDR Said ‘Play Ball.’” Prologue Magazine 34, no. 1 (Spring 2002). (

Burkeman, Oliver. “Why Trivia is So Important.” The Guardian, May 14, 2010. (

Burnikel, C. C. “Interview with Victor Fleming.” L.A. Times Crossword Corner, November 27, 2010.

Cieplak-Mayr Von Baldegg, Kasia. “The West Wing’s Leo McGarry on the Correct Way to Spell ‘Qaddafi.’” The Atlantic, August 24, 2011. (

Connor, Alan. “Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no. 8: The West Wing.” The Crossword Blog – The Guardian, June 7, 2012. (

Coscarelli, Joe. “A Brief History of Rap in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.” New York Magazine, August 7, 2014.

Danesi, Marcel. “Word Squares.” Psychology Today, February 8, 2011. (

Eskin, Blake. “Like Monopoly in the Depression, Settlers of Catan is the board game of our time.” The Washington Post, November 21, 2010. (

Glück, Judith, Belinda Bischof, and Linda Siebenhüner. “‘Knows what is Good and Bad,’ ‘Can teach you things,’ ‘Does lots of crosswords,’: Children’s knowledge about wisdom.” European Journal of Developmental Psychology 9, no. 5 (2012): 582 – 598. DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2011.631376.

Hoyt, Alex. “How Will Shortz Edits a New York Times Crossword.” The Atlantic, September 13, 2011. (

Hunt, Nathan. “The Importance of Trivia: Ownership, Exclusion, and Authority in Science Fiction.” Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes. Ed. Mark Jancovich. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kahn, David J. “Wisecracks.” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25. Ed. Will Shortz. New York: Random House, 1999.

Maltby, Richard Jr., and David Shire. “Crossword Puzzle.” Starting Here, Starting Now. 1977.

Roy, Jessica. “A Brief History of the Kardashians Appearing in the New York Times Crossword.” New York Magazine, June 16, 2015.

Seibel, Nickolas. “UA Alum Gets Animated.” Daily Wildcat, November 14, 2008. (

Simon, Bryant. Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America from Starbucks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Sullivan, John. Media Audiences. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2013.

Thompson, Bill. “Tuesday December 10, 2013 puzzle.” The New York Times, December 10, 2013.

Tucker, Geraint. The Everything Cryptic Crosswords Book. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2007.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. “The Significance of Trivia.” Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 52 – 66.

Weng, Will. “Hasty Pudding.” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25. Ed. Will Shortz. New York: Random House, 1999.

Wexler, Mark and Ron Sept. “The Psycho-Social Significance of Trivia.” The Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 1 – 11. ProQuest.

Wordplay. Directed by Patrick Creadon. DVD. IFC Films / Weinstein Company, 2006.

  1. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “The Significance of Trivia,” Journal of Mormon History 19, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 52,↩︎

  2. Coral Amende, The Crossword Obsession: The History and Lore of the World’s Most Popular Pastime (New York: Berkley Books, 2001). ↩︎

  3. Mark N. Wexler and Ron Sept, “The Psycho-Social Significance of Trivia,” The Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 1, ProQuest. [^4]:Marcel Danesi, “Word Squares,” Psychology Today, February 8, 2011, (; Amende, Crossword Obsession, 3-5. ↩︎

  4. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 8; Herbert Mitgang, “Margaret Farrar, 87, Editor of Crossword Puzzles, Dies,” New York Times, June 12, 1984, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ↩︎

  5. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 9-10. ↩︎

  6. Oliver Burkeman, “Why Trivia is So Important,” Guardian, May 14, 2010, ( ↩︎

  7. Blake Eskin, “Like Monopoly in the Depression, Settlers of Catan is the Board Game of Our Time,” Washington Post, November 21, 2010, ( ↩︎

  8. Wexler and Sept, “Psycho-Social Significance,” 1. ↩︎

  9. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 15. ↩︎

  10. “French Bar Crossword Puzzles,” New York Times, September 22, 1944, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ↩︎

  11. Gerald Bazer and Steven Culbertson, “When FDR Said ‘Play Ball,’” Prologue Magazine 34, no. 1 (Spring 2002), ( ↩︎

  12. Henry F. Holbrook, “Puzzle Makers, Letter to the Editor,” New York Times, May 17, 1942, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. ↩︎

  13. Mitgang, “Farrar Obit.” ↩︎

  14. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 16. ↩︎

  15. Mitgang, “Farrar Obit.” ↩︎

  16. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 17. ↩︎

  17. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 14. ↩︎

  18. The Times requires retirement at age 70, but Farrar quietly continued her tenure for another two years. ↩︎

  19. Amende, Crossword Obsession, 20-22. ↩︎

  20. Alex Hoyt, “How Will Shortz Edits a New York Times Crossword,” The Atlantic, September 13, 2011, (; Amende, Crossword Obsession, 34. ↩︎

  21. While Jenkins’ text is considered the pivotal text in fan studies, there are other studies that investigate different subcultures. What set Jenkins apart from his predecessors, however, was a new approach, one in which the fan is not indicative of larger “evils” in our culture, but as an integral part of how we all engage with media. Because of my own personal investment in the New York Times crossword, I identify more with Jenkins’ analysis of fan culture. ↩︎

  22. Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian J. Longhurst. Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 1998). ↩︎

  23. John Sullivan, Media Audiences (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2013), 194. ↩︎

  24. “Filk” is fan music written about a text or the relationships within. Jenkins discusses this at length in chapter 8 of Textual Poachers, but it has become an even larger phenomenon over the last 15 years, especially within the Harry Potter subculture. ↩︎

  25. Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York: Routledge, 1992). ↩︎

  26. Wordplay, directed by Patrick Creadon, DVD (IFC Films / Weinstein Company, 2006); C.C. Burnikel, “Interview with Victor Fleming,” L.A. Times Crossword Corner, November 27, 2010.↩︎

  27. Nathan Hunt, “The Importance of Trivia: Ownership, Exclusion, and Authority in Science Fiction,” Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Tastes, ed. Mark Jancovich (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 185 - 186. ↩︎

  28. Geraint Tucker, The Everything Cryptic Crosswords Book (Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2007), xi - xii. ↩︎

  29. David J. Kahn, “Wisecracks,” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25, ed. Will Shortz (New York: Random House, 1999), 93; this puzzle was originally published in the Times on September 10, 1995. ↩︎

  30. Will Weng, “Hasty Pudding,” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25, ed. Will Shortz (New York: Random House, 1999), 50; this puzzle was originally published in the Times on January 7, 1990. ↩︎

  31. Coral Amende, “O Captain, My Captain,” The New York Times Sunday Crossword Puzzles, Vol. 25, ed. Will Shortz (New York: Random House, 1999), 91; this puzzle was original published in the Times on June 11, 1995. ↩︎

  32. Fernando Alfanso III, “This GIF explains the most clever crossword puzzle in history,” The Daily Dot, February 13, 2013, ( ↩︎

  33. Bill Thompson, “Tuesday December 10, 2013 puzzle,” New York Times, December 10, 2013. ↩︎

  34. Joe Coscarelli, “A Brief History of Rap in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle,” New York Magazine, August 7, 2014,↩︎

  35. Coscarelli, “Brief History of Rap.” ↩︎

  36. Jessica Roy, “A Brief History of the Kardashians Appearing in the New York Times Crossword,” New York Magazine, June 16, 2015,↩︎

  37. Coscarelli, “Brief History of Rap.” ↩︎

  38. Coscarelli, “Brief History of Rap.” ↩︎

  39. Roy, “Brief History of the Kardashians.” ↩︎

  40. Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, “Crossword Puzzle,” Starting Here, Starting Now, 1977. ↩︎

  41. The Simpsons, “Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words,” Episode 20.6, directed by Nancy Kruse, written by Tim Long, Fox, November 16, 2008. ↩︎

  42. Nickolas Seibel, “UA Alum Gets Animated,” Daily Wildcat, November 14, 2008, (↩︎

  43. Kasia Cieplak-Mayr Von Baldegg, “The West Wing’s Leo McGarry on the Correct Way to Spell ‘Qaddafi,’” The Atlantic, August 24, 2011, ( ↩︎

  44. Alan Connor, “Top 10 crosswords in fiction, no. 8: The West Wing,” The Crossword Blog – The Guardian, June 7, 2012, (; It should also be noted that in another Aaron Sorkin project, The American President, which is eerily similar to The West Wing, President Shephard (Michael Douglas) also has a conversation that involves a discussion of the Times puzzle. ↩︎

  45. Wordplay↩︎

  46. Judith Glück, Belinda Bischof, and Linda Siebenhüner, “’Knows what is Good and Bad,’ ‘Can teach you things,’ ‘Does lots of crosswords,’: Children’s knowledge about wisdom,” European Journal of Developmental Psychology 9, no. 5 (2012): 582 – 598, DOI: 10.1080/17405629.2011.631376. ↩︎

  47. Supernatural, “Free to Be You and Me,” Episode 5.3, directed by J. Miller Tobin, written by Jeremy Carver, CW, September 24, 2009. ↩︎

  48. How I Met Your Mother, “Robots Versus Wrestlers,” Episode 5.22, directed by Rob Greenberg, written by Jamie Rhonheimer, CBS, May 10, 2010. ↩︎

  49. Brooklyn 99, “The Mattress,” Episode 3.7, directed by Dean Holland, written by Dan Goor, Michael Schur, and Laura McCreary, Fox, November 15, 2015. ↩︎

  50. Brooklyn 99, “The Puzzle Master,” Episode 5.15, directed by Akiva Schaffer, written by Dan Goor, Michael Schur, and Lang Fisher, Fox, April 8, 2018. ↩︎

About the Author: 

Megan C. McGee Yinger earned her Ph.D. in American studies from Penn State University, Harrisburg and her B.A. in American studies from La Salle University. Her research interests include American popular culture, media, and disaster studies.

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