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The Word

Farewell, etui

The changing language of crosswords

By Erin McKean
February 15, 2009
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LAST YEAR, DURING the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, host and puzzlemaster Will Shortz held aloft a tiny object. It was barely visible from the back of the cavernous hotel ballroom, but the whole room of more than 700 contestants promptly burst into applause. What was it? A little needlecase, better known to puzzlers as an etui - one of the mainstays of the curious language of crosswordese.

The vocabulary of crosswords is like the dialect of an alternate and highly specific universe, populated by Ednas and Enids and Ians; where the food is Oreos and oleo and the drinks ales and tea. It embraces particular bits of French (ami, ete), Latin (esse, ave), Spanish (este, oro), and even a little Hindi (Sri). It wields an epee with elan; is on familiar terms with tsars and emirs; enjoys music, especially the oboe and altos, and likes to travel: Iran, Oslo, Reno, Etna. And it's interested in science, exploring ions and the atom, as well as the erne and the orca.

It's knowledge of crosswordese that separates the hard-core puzzlers from the dilettantes. You may never, ever find an opportunity to bring Enyo (a Greek war goddess) into conversation, and, like those contestants, you may have never seen an etui before, but if it helps you fill in that last blank square of a puzzle, it will be burned into your brain forever.

Because crosswordese is familiar (at least to regular puzzle-solvers), those answers are often the first words filled in, advance scouts that enable attacks on the longer, more difficult, or more unusual answers. Being able to quickly fill in a few squares primes the pump and gets the synapses firing, warming up the brain for the assault on the meat of the puzzle.

Today, however, many of these classic puzzle words are fading slowly, yielding to newer, fresher entries. Elater (click beetle), istle (carpet fiber), and Omri (Ahab's father, or the first name of the actor Omri Katz, and no, I hadn't heard of him either) are giving way to slang (phat, mondo, bling), trademarks (Lycra, Freon), and modern pop-culture figures (J. Lo, A-Rod).

"Many older crosswordese words have disappeared," says Jim Horne, who runs the Xwordinfo.com site, which counts words' appearances in the New York Times puzzle. Horne's site also rates puzzles for "freshness" (or, to put it another way, istle-lessness) and has a page tracking new words and phrases making their crossword debuts. There are so many of those that he only displays the most recent 30 days' worth.

Some of this turnover is simply a result of natural drift of the culture. But most of it is deliberate, brought about by puzzle constructors and editors. The best constructors - the people who painstakingly build the puzzles and write the clues - value originality as much as any other artists.

"Most constructors worth their salt are good and sick of many of the words that turn up in crossword after crossword, and make an effort to avoid them if they can," says Francis Heaney, a crossword constructor and editor at Sterling, a publisher of puzzle books.

Puzzle constructors are also linguistically competitive, says John Chaneski, a Brooklyn-based constructor who also creates puzzles for the radio show "A Way With Words." "Many crossword constructors actively try to be the first to get shiny new words into a Times crossword. There's sort of a very loose rivalry."

The puzzle editors, the gatekeepers who buy the puzzles that appear in newspapers and books, are not just looking for a new set of obscure words to replace the ones that have gone stale. In fact, they don't want really obscure words at all. Shortz, the puzzle editor for the New York Times, prefers phrases, even common ones, over crosswordese, calling them "fresh, lively, and colorful . . . and it's stuff everyone knows, while not being easy to figure out, especially when given devious clues." His own online instructions to aspiring constructors warns them: "Keep crosswordese to a minimum."

In this new focus on everyday phrases, crosswords are just following the rest of the language. More and more, our new words are really new phrases. Of the American Dialect Society's eight winners in words of the year for 2008, five were either phrases or compounds: bailout, recombobulation area, terrorist fist jab, scooping technician, and shovel-ready.

It's a little sad to think that, as they fade from the crossword puzzle world, words like nard (ancient ointment) and topee (pith helmet) lose their last chance to be anything other than obscure curiosities. But perhaps they'd really like to be loved for themselves, and not just as a handy way to fill 35-Down.

And if it's any consolation, most enthusiasts doubt that crosswordese will ever disappear completely - especially consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel terms like amah (Asian nurse) or kudu (African antelope). Says Amy Reynaldo, who writes the blog Diary of a Crossword Fiend: "If it's in a mainstream dictionary, it has three or four letters, and it's at least half vowels, its continued appearance in crosswords is pretty well assured."

Erin McKean is a lexicographer working on a new online dictionary. She blogs at www.dictionaryevangelist.com. Jan Freeman will return in March.

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