How Crosswords Came of Age in the 2010s

Ten of the decade’s favorite entries speak to the color and comprehensiveness of modern puzzles

Cultural juggernaut and music star Lizzo will soon be making her debut as an entry in the Times crossword—with a double-Z name like that, who could resist? (Photos via Getty Images and Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Roc Nation; photo illustration by Meilan Solly)
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Crossword puzzles, like dictionaries, often feel like linguistic authorities, solemn gatekeepers with particular—and unimpeachably correct—guidance to offer on which words to use and how to use them. But this is not their true role. Both crossword puzzle clues and Merriam-Webster definitions are crafted to reflect current usage, not to prescribe future usage. Rather than sacred scrolls, crosswords and dictionaries are mirrors held up to language that reflect how people are talking and writing at a given moment in history.

It is therefore essential that these platforms evolve, lest they become hopelessly out of touch with the real world. Solvers of the New York Times crossword—the mainstay of American puzzledom—have, over the past decade, borne witness to this evolution, whether they realize it or not. The advantage crosswords have over dictionaries is that they can change much more rapidly—and the changes are far easier to detect, provided you know where to look. The website XWord Info (originally the brainchild of puzzle blogger Jim Horne, now overseen by crossword constructor Jeff Chen) hosts a massive database of all Times puzzles dating back to 1942.

By many estimates, more people than ever are solving crosswords, and the puzzles are attracting new, younger segments of the population. “Historically, the audience skewed older,” says the Times’ crossword columnist Deb Amlen, “but I’ve met a lot of young people now who go to tournaments and really enjoy it.”

Will Shortz, the longtime puzzle editor for the Times, has observed a similar trend among their authors. “In the ’90s,” he says, “my sense is that the average age of constructors [submitting puzzles] was in the early 50s. Now it’s in the mid-30s.”

What’s come of this trend is a positive feedback loop of young constructors attracting young solvers who in turn become young constructors. The catalysts for this are many: the ease of access to puzzles online; software that makes puzzle construction more fun and less daunting; an increase in social networking and collaboration among both setters and solvers (as on XWord Info); and Deb Amlen’s Wordplay column, which she writes with an eye toward “helping those intimidated by the New York Times crossword get over their fear of the puzzle.”

Indeed, this crossword fever extends well beyond the Times. Amlen has been heartened in recent years by the rise of indie crossword communities all over the country focused on those historically underrepresented in puzzledom—the LGBTQ+ community, female constructors, and people of color. Many of these constructors have gone on to submit their work to the Times or other leading crossword publishers, and Amlen is passionate about continuing to grow diversity in mainstream puzzles in the years to come.

Given the demand for crosswords that can, in Amlen’s words, “talk to” younger audiences, as well as the prodigious volume of submissions to the Times (over 125 a week nowadays), it comes as little surprise that the 2010s saw Shortz enlist two assistants—Joel Fagliano, 26, and Sam Ezersky, 24—to help him with his selections and editing. (Ezersky also contributed a puzzle for the December issue of Smithsonian – solve it yourself here.) Their input helps the Times crossword fulfill its objective of reflecting in a fun way what people are talking about and how they are doing so.

Shortz, like a lexicographer, makes the ultimate call on whether an entry is significant enough to include in a puzzle that people will still be solving in reprinted or archived form years after its initial run. “I like the crosswords to be timeless,” he says, “so if a name is suddenly talked about but doesn’t have staying power, I won’t use it.”

Shortz notes with pride that cultural juggernaut and music star LIZZO will soon be making her debut as an entry in the Times crossword—with a double-Z name like that, who could resist? But Lizzo is but the tip of the cruciverbal iceberg. For a puzzle that in the 1970s held “belly button” to be too indelicate an entry for the eyes of solvers and gave little quarter to culture beyond opera and fine art, the Times crossword has come a very long way in a very short time, with some of its biggest strides to date falling within the past decade.

Pulling from the XWord Info database, here are ten New York Times crossword entries that helped define the 2010-2019 cruciverbal coming of age:

1. MEME

The internet of the 2010s saw an explosive proliferation in memes of every kind—dog memes, baby memes, memes from TV, memes from movies, memes seemingly from the depths of our collective id. To overlook memes in the Times crossword would have been a failing of the highest order.

While this string of letters was frequently clued pre-2010 with references to the French word MÊME (“Same, by the Seine”) or the classroom yell ME! ME! (“Attention-getting cry”), 2010 was the first year that MEME in its all-too-recognizable cyber sense made its debut. “Internet ___ (viral phenomenon)” is how it was clued in a Finn Vigeland puzzle of that year, and it has enjoyed 21 additional nods since, with clues invoking everything from lolcats (see below) to Rickrolling to Yanny vs. Laurel. Thanks to a 2018 Ryan McCarty puzzle, even DANK MEMES had their day.

2. SIM

In the early 2000s, the crossword entry SIM gained popularity alongside the Sims video game franchise, which lets players micromanage the lives of whole communities of fictional people in part-endearing, part-Machiavellian “simulations.” Around 2010, SIM got a second wind as we began to better understand the inner workings of our cell phones—specifically, their SIM cards. “Kind of card” was the clue for SIM in a Yaakov Bendavid puzzle of 2011, and similar cell phone nods (“___ card” especially) typified cluing of SIM in the 16 subsequent instances.

Fans of the Sims gaming empire should despair not, however—periodic nods to the addicting-as-ever power trip video games (“Dweller in a virtual ‘City,’” etc.) have not gone away. Nor even have the old-school references to actor Alastair Sim, who portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in a popular 1951 movie rendition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

3. SEXT

SEXT is the sort of crossword answer that some solvers love to decry. Not only is it slang, it’s slang intimately linked to mobile phone culture, lewd in significance, and derived via portmanteau—a quadruple whammy. And yet there’s no denying it enjoys wide usage and recognition, even (gasp!) as a verb. This raunchy favorite has spawned some clever clues in recent years, ranging from Jeremy Newton’s “Something dirty kept in a cell?” (2014) to Howard Barkin’s “Barely communicate?” (2019).

All told, SEXT has appeared on 13 occasions since 2010 (when Corey Rubin defined it with “Send explicit come-ons by cell phone”), and it's been clued racily every time. Pre-2010, constructors resorted to the likes of “Noontime service,” “Canonical hour” and “Pipe organ stop” to define these four very useful letters.

4. TWEET

The 2010s were a heyday for social media platforms, particularly the rapid-cycling feeds of Twitter and Instagram. This fact was duly mirrored in the Times’ cluing of the longtime crossword staple TWEET, which circa 2010 pivoted away from all the classic avian allusions you’d expect (“Little bird’s sound,” “Swift reply?”) to acknowledgements of the burgeoning Twittersphere. Matt Ginsberg and Peter Muller tested the waters in 2009 with the clue “Post a modern status update.” Similar clues (“Message to one’s followers,” “Many a Donald Trump announcement”) appeared 11 times in the years since. The allure of Twitter references proved strong enough to silence the birdsong definition completely for the decade’s duration. Related gems like RETWEET and TWEETSTORM debuted in this same timeframe.

5. N.L. EAST

"Jeopardy!" contestants are notorious for their aversion to sports, a weakness shared by many members of the cruciverbal clique. As it turns out, sports are a big part of American cultural life and have been for quite some while, making their inclusion in crosswords totally fair game (and their exclusion borderline embarrassing). The 2010s saw a number of sporting entries rise in crossword prominence, including the colloquial “NLEAST,” which denotes the division of baseball’s National League containing such squads as the Mets, Phillies and the 2019 World Champion Washington Nationals (themselves represented in NAT or NATS form an impressive 32 times in the 2010s).

The NL East has been around for quite a while, of course—since 1969—but it wasn’t till the turn of the millennium that the Times conceded that shorthand proper nouns from the world of sports really did represent everyday American conversation. The 2000s saw a lot of this language rear its head in the crossword, and in the 2010s it became indispensable. This sort of entry invites constructors to bare their own allegiances—the nine instances of NLEAST found in Times puzzles of the past ten years mostly invoke specific team names, à la Lynn Lempel’s “Atlanta Braves’ div.” Andrew J. Ries found a slightly less obvious angle in 2017, cluing the entry as “Div. that manager Bobby Cox won every year from 1995 to 2005.” American League fans can take comfort in the knowledge that the ALEAST appeared in two puzzles more (11 total) than its counterpart this decade.

6. NICKI MINAJ

There was a time when naming any sort of popular musician in a crossword would merit a slap on the wrist for constructors, so you can only imagine the outcry from older solvers when rappers’ stylized stage names like JAY Z, DR DRE and (yes) SOULJA BOY TELL EM began appearing regularly. Yet there’s no denying the names of these performers are widely recognized—and rich in “Scrabbly” letters besides. One of puzzledom’s favorite rappers of the past decade is NICKI MINAJ, whose tantalizingly tricky-to-spell name has proven irresistible to many a constructor. Young constructor David Steinberg—the second youngest to be published in the Times, behind Daniel Larsen—included NICKI MINAJ in her full glory in a crossword of 2013. Jeff Chen followed on this precedent with a “Rapper Nicki” clue for MINAJ later that same year. In total, NICKI, MINAJ and NICKI MINAJ have appeared 9 times over the past 10 years, occasionally with reference to specific hits of hers like “Super Bass” and “Anaconda.”

7. LGBT

LGBTQ+ issues were at the heart of much political discourse in the 2010s, and crossword constructors took note. The initialism LGBT made its Times crossword debut rather late, in 2015, but appeared a whopping 18 additional times in grids of the next 4 years. “Modern civil rights initialism” was Ben Tausig’s inaugural clue, followed up by the likes of “Pride parade letters,” “Letters for Out readers,” and “Rainbow flag letters.” Interestingly, as debates over the inclusivity of the initialism caught fire in the public sphere, the Times crossword itself reckoned with the Q (for queer, or questioning) often appended to the four base letters. While LGBTQIA has not yet appeared in a Times puzzle, LGBTQ has, on two occasions in 2017. “Letters before Q” was also used as the clue for LGBT in both 2017 and ’18.

8. LOL

Few three-letter crossword entries scream internet culture louder than LOL, an acronym which still enjoys wide—sometimes even verbal—usage. This term dating to the 1990s is by this point universally known in contemporary America, where even the stodgiest of grandparents will hazard the occasional (often embarrassing, granted) LOL in Facebook comments or personal texts. LOL got some crossword coverage in the early 2000s, where it was clued with already archaic-seeming definitions like “Response to an on-line joke” (note the hyphen), “Chat room chuckle,” and “‘That’s funny!,’ in an e-mail.”

But LOL really came into its own in the 2010s, during which it appeared an incredible 48 times. It’s a good example of Shortz’s approach to ushering new terms—and uses for them—into the Times puzzles: “I try to have the vocabulary in the crossword reflect readers’ vocabulary.”

Clues for LOL like “Common palindromic text” and “Response to a good meme, maybe” mercifully replaced the references to “e-mails” and “on-line chatrooms,” and the dubious 1973 cluing of LOL as “Sudan river” was expunged from memory for good. The LOLCAT genre of MEME, meanwhile, has appeared twice, clued with "Many a feline Facebook posting" in an Adam G. Perl puzzle of August 2017 and "Meme feline" in a Ross Trudeau puzzle of January 2019.

9. BARISTA

It’s strange to think that BARISTA, now a job option so ubiquitous that prisons are training inmates for it, was a complete stranger to the Times crossword prior to 2012. With the mega-success of Starbucks and its various coffee competitors, BARISTA has transformed from a somewhat niche Italian loanword to a term most everyone not only knows but uses regularly. Paula Gamache lays claim to the first-ever instance of the entry in the New York Times puzzle, clued straightforwardly as a “Coffeehouse server” in a grid from April 2012. The word’s 7 other appearances across the 2010s were sometimes clued plainly (Zhouqin Burkinel went almost the identical route as Gamache with “Server at a coffeehouse”), but sometimes playfully, as with “Fitting occupation for a ‘Joe’” (Alex Bajcz) or “One who’s got something brewing” (Daniel Larsen). LATTE ART and VENTI have gotten their share of love too.

10. EDIBLE UNDERWEAR

It felt fitting to give the last spot on this list to an infamous 2012 contribution to the Times crossword—one which, while never duplicated in the years since, signaled a sea change in what was deemed acceptable, opening the floodgates for SEXTs and SEX TOYs and PORN STARs and all the rest. This sprawling 15-letter entry, which Gamache, a veteran constructor, crossed with CHERRY CHAPSTICK and TAILGATE PARTIES, was none other than the phrase EDIBLE UNDERWEAR.

The shock factor of the answer was only exacerbated by Gamache’s sly clue, “Tasteful bedclothes?” Amlen, herself an advocate of the irreverent in puzzledom, holds that 2012 grid in the highest esteem, viewing it as a benchmark for boundary-pushing and a vital contribution to the crossword canon. “It was nice to see the Gray Lady let her hair down a little,” she recalls.

Editor's note, January 15, 2020: This article originally misstated that users could comment on crossword puzzles on the XWord Info website and to clarify that the database tracks the New York Times crossword puzzle back to 1942.

About Ryan P. Smith
Ryan P. Smith

Ryan recently graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Science, Technology and Society. His avocations include moviegoing and crossword puzzle construction.

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