Now THIS Is a Kaufman If There Ever Was One: Crossword Constructor Diversity

In this post earlier this month, I introduced the essential Ethics Alarms term and category “Kaufman’s Observation,” or a Kaufman for short, which was duly entered into the blog glossary.

The particular application then was the “problem” of scam murder-for-hire websites. The Kaufman is reserved for “alleged ethics violations so inconsequential as to be unworthy of attention or indignation.”

Here’s another one. In The Atlantic, which has become so mindlessly and relentlessly progressive that it is painful to observe, there really and truly is an article titled, “The Hidden Bigotry of Crosswords:The popular puzzles are largely written and edited by older white men, who dictate what makes it into the grid—and what is kept out.”

A sample:

Will Shortz, the Puzzles editor at the Times, has cited low submission rates from underrepresented groups as one reason for lack of constructor parity, but tone deafness and opacity can put constructors off the newspaper. (I was once Shortz’s editorial assistant, and I contribute crosswords to the Times.) In a Facebook thread with Shortz and other commenters, Rebecca Falcon, a 30-year-old constructor, posted: “I can’t feel good about putting my work into an outlet that I feel has very different values than my own.” She continued: “Is there anything being done to address these issues?” Shortz gave a thoughtful answer citing recent increases in women bylines, saying parity was “an important issue for us.” But when prodded about insensitive edits, he denied them, adding: “If a puzzlemaker is unhappy with our style of editing, then they should send their work elsewhere (or publish it themselves to keep complete control).”

The Horror! Inadequate crossword puzzle diversity and demographic equity! The article also reveals the scandal of clue and answer insensitivity:

And while some corners of culture are kept out of crosswords, some troubling aspects of language creep in. The New York Times puzzle has weathered deep sensitivity issues of late, including allowing a racial slur in the grid in January 2019, despite unequivocal protestations from those who saw the puzzle prepublication. Other transgressions include clues for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”); MEN (“Exasperated comment from a feminist”); and HOOD (“Place with homies”).

Can you guess what the supposed “racial slur” was? This!

The clue for 2 down in the New York Times’ first crossword puzzle of the new year was nothing unusual: “Pitch to the head, informally.” But the answer stopped many puzzlers in their tracks: BEANER, which, as critics quickly pointed out, is also a slur used against Mexicans. “I’m very sorry for the distraction,” longtime puzzle editor Will Shortz wrote in a response posted that afternoon. “For any solver who was offended by 2-Down in today’s puzzle, I apologize.”

Of course, Shortz should not have apologized. He should have said, “Since it was obvious that the context of “beaner’ was far removed from its ethnic implications, there was nothing wrong with the clue or the answer, and those who were upset, or who are feigning upset, by the short-hand word for a “beanball” are invited to seek psychiatric help.”

Similarly, a lack of gender equity in crossword puzzle “constructors” is a “problem” on par in urgency and seriousness with the absence of female monsters in Godzilla movies. It literally doesn’t matter except to social justice fanatics whose mission in life is to make people think it matters, and to bully spineless lackeys like poor Mr.  Shortz into groveling before them.  I don’t care. Nothing could make me care. Nobody should care. Or to quote Mr. Kaufman yet again,

“On Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope. The Mount Palomar telescope is an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope….if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to see my interest in this problem.”

16 thoughts on “Now THIS Is a Kaufman If There Ever Was One: Crossword Constructor Diversity

  1. I’m genuinely surprised, I actually thought it was women who mostly designed and played crossword puzzles.


    I humbly apologize for my sexist assumption. I will work hard to overcome my white male biases and show greater respect for women and minorities.


    And I love progressivism.

  2. I can’t comment on any specific complaint about crossword puzzles, but I think they’re more significant than you give them credit for, in terms of their potential influence on the thinking of those who solve them. Crossword puzzles are based in part on trivia but also in part on assumed common knowledge, and people know that. That means anyone attempting to solve one will assume that the phrases they figure out are accurately described by the clues describing those phrases, even if they didn’t think so before.

    Additionally, crossword puzzles can shift the Overton window, moving things in and out of the public discourse.

    In other words, crossword puzzles implicitly shape what people think about the answers, based on what clues are given regarding those answers. Clues can prompt people to focus on one connotation of a word, or to feel positively or negatively towards something, by highlighting different perspectives with the pretense of being objective descriptors. A crossword puzzle can be an entire opinion piece disguised as a game and sprinkled with innocuous riddles to camouflage the biased ones. At its most insidious, it could be do-it-yourself propaganda.

    The relevant mindsets here are narrative and presentation. What more subtle way to control the words people use and what they mean than to create puzzles for bored intellectuals that literally tell them what descriptions to associate with phrases, and what labels are the most important? Less Wrong has a whole essay sequence on choosing labels carefully so that your thinking doesn’t become distorted by cognitive shortcuts in the wrong places.

    They’re far from a top priority, but crossword puzzles are not a Kaufman. They’re culture. If art, literature, music, movies, and theatre can help or harm people’s ethics alarms, then so can puzzles.

    6 down: Dystopian author; alternatively healthy.

    • 1. Do you do crossword puzzles? I hate the things, but I can’t see them influencing anyone or anything. They’re like riddles. One is trying to decypher the author’s clues, which are personal to him or her, not the culture. The author of a puzzle doesn’t speak for the culture, and I’d be shocked if anyone thinks so who actually completes the things.

      2. You didn’t address the point of the post, which is not whether the puzzles themselves matter (though they don’t), but whether the genders of the “constructors” matter. You haven’t explained why they should, and if they should, then why not every other slice of the demographics—race, ethnicity, age, IQ, educational level, socioeconomic class, party affiliation, height, weight, physical handicap, dog or cat lover, what else?…why not any or all of these?

      • 1. You’re a perception mindset user who thinks critically; you don’t accidentally calibrate your sense of mainstream culture based on osmosis from individual samples. It’s time to be shocked. On the one side, there are people who already agree with the crossword author, whose beliefs don’t change. On the other, there are people who distinctly disagree, whose beliefs also don’t change.

        Then there are people on the borderline who might be tipped to one side or another, at least for a while, based on what they read. They don’t think the author speaks for the culture. They forget there is an author. In a mainstream newspaper, the crossword can give the illusion of having been bestowed upon mortals by the zeitgeist, because crosswords don’t have faces. It’s a word puzzle! Everything it tells you is literally true, so how can there be any cultural biases? The biases live in what is shown and not shown, and in how clues are framed.

        I can’t make any statements about how often this actually happens. I’m saying that this is a known phenomenon with humans. This is how cultural shifts work, for good or ill. Part of it is the mere-exposure effect. People prefer ideas they’ve seen before.

        2. It only matters for the same reason anyone ever cares about the demographics of creators: people feel that a creator’s demographic background influences their ability to represent the values and experiences of people of other backgrounds. The degree to which that’s true varies by creator, but generally it takes more effort to effectively portray an experience you haven’t had personally. As someone who actually knows how values and experiences work, I prefer to look at those directly rather than using the creator’s life history as a proxy. I only care that what’s being said makes sense; I don’t care who’s saying it.

      • I also disagree with E.C. – there is a vast portion of the U.S. population who has never heard of the New York Times Crossword and an even more enormous portion who has never worked on one. They represent the culture of the “constructor”, which tends toward old, white, and urban, and I suspect those who work the puzzles tend that way as well. This demographic also has a tendency to be self-appointed gatekeepers of culture to decide what is and is not “culture”.

        • Sorry for the delayed response; I have no idea who actually completes those crossword puzzles, so maybe they don’t get much exposure. I just figured the clues and answers could seep into the sense of normality of people who do them, and those people could subtly influence senses of normality of the people around them, et cetera. If they don’t, that’s fine, but I reject the idea that we can assume they don’t without seriously considering it.

          If crossword puzzles reflect an insular, gentrified culture, that’s fine (everyone needs a place they feel understood), as long as they don’t try to normalize contempt.

  3. Lets assume all this is true. What is wrong with using clue references that the largest individual segment of society understands? Are such puzzles uniquely American? Do puzzles in Latin America or China or Europe make clues that indigenous Aussies would would understand?

    If puzzles must be constructed to reflect the understanding of a narrow segment of society that narrow segment will never be able to assimilate into the mainstream.

    My guess for the racial slur was ” illegal” because Men! is obviously a perfectly acceptable term used by women when men don’t roll over and let the have their way. Hood is the colloquial term used by persons living in modern day ghetto communities often referenced by popular black artists thus it cannot be a slur.

  4. Wait, since when do The Atlantic or The New York Times care that they don’t represent everybody’s values? Since when is it important to them not to exclude anybody’s culture? I’ve watched them gaslight everybody left of Ralph Nader for years. I’m fairly certain conservatives, rural dwellers, gun owners, and committed Christians have values and cultures.

    • But that controversy is worth caring about, because it poses a direct threat to freedom of speech and expression. The genders of those who make NY Times crossword puzzles? If a law was passed requiring them all to be Belgian eunuchs, what difference would it make?

      • Agreed. Who wants to hire a lawyer who cowers in fear at the utterance of the Word that Can’t be Said? Maybe potential clients should ask prospective lawyers: “I’m gonna throw some words out. Tell me your first impression. ‘Cow’, ‘automobile’, ‘Green New Deal,’ “the N-Word.'” If the mere mention of the first letter causes the prospective lawyer to collapse in a mess on the floor, then the prospective client should pack his/her/its case file and find someone else.


  5. I am a frequent player of Words with Friends on my Facebook feed. I am often astonished at what words are not allowed because of cultural sensitivity.E.G. Tried to use the word fag (as a colloquialism for a cigarette), Gay (a joyous sensation), or even Nip (to cut). I was warned in no uncertain terms that these words may be offensive thus are unacceptable to play. I can use the Spanish word adios but cannot use the Italian word Ciao!

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