The New York Times crossword puzzle

The New York Times crossword puzzle

The New York Times crossword puzzle is a daily puzzle found in The New York Times and online at the paper's website. It is also syndicated to more than 300 other newspapers and journals.[1] The puzzle is created by various freelance constructors and is edited by Will Shortz. The puzzle becomes increasingly difficult throughout the week, with the easiest puzzle on Monday and the most difficult puzzle on Saturday.[2] The larger Sunday crossword, which appears in The New York Times Magazine, is an icon in American culture; it is typically intended to be as difficult as a Thursday puzzle.[2] The standard daily crossword is 15 squares x 15 squares, while the Sunday crossword measures either 21 squares x 21 squares or 23 x 23 (a special set of 25 x 25 Sunday puzzles, with two sets of clues—easy and hard—was published in 1999 to commemorate the upcoming millennium).[3]



While crosswords became popular in the early 1920s, it was not until 1942 that The New York Times (which initially regarded crosswords as frivolous, calling them "a primitive form of mental exercise") began running a crossword in its Sunday edition.[4][5] The first puzzle ran on Sunday, February 15, 1942; the motivating impulse for the Times to finally run the puzzle (which took over 20 years even though its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was a longtime crossword fan) appears to have been the bombing of Pearl Harbor; in a memo dated December 18, 1941, an editor conceded that the puzzle deserved space in the paper, considering what was happening elsewhere in the world and that readers might need something to occupy themselves during blackouts.[5] The puzzle proved popular, and Sulzberger himself would author a Times puzzle before the year was out.[5] In 1950, the crossword became a daily feature. That first daily puzzle was published without an author line, and to this day the identity of the author of the first weekday Times crossword remains unknown.[6] There have been four editors of the puzzle: Margaret Farrar from the puzzle's inception until 1969; Will Weng, former head of the Times's metropolitan copy desk, until 1977; Eugene T. Maleska until 1993; and the current editor, Will Shortz. Of the three former editors, Maleska alone held the position until his death. In addition to editing the Times crosswords, Shortz founded and runs the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament as well as the World Puzzle Championship (where he remains captain of the US team), has published numerous books of crosswords, sudoku, and other puzzles, and serves as "Puzzlemaster" on the NPR show "Weekend Edition Sunday".[7][8]

The popularity of the puzzle has grown over the years, until it came to be considered the most prestigious of the widely circulated crosswords in America; its popularity is attested to by the numerous celebrities and public figures who've publicly proclaimed their liking for the puzzle, including opera singer Beverly Sills,[5] author Norman Mailer,[9] baseball pitcher Mike Mussina,[10] former President Bill Clinton,[11] conductor Leonard Bernstein,[5] TV host Jon Stewart[10] and music duo the Indigo Girls.[10]

The Times puzzles have been collected in hundreds of books over the years from various publishers, most notably Random House and St. Martin's Press, the current publisher of the series.[12] In addition to their appearance in the printed newspaper, the Times puzzles also appear online at the paper's website, where they remain the only part of the paper's content for which users need to pay for online access (unless they already subscribe to the printed version of the paper for home delivery).[13] In 2007, Majesco released The New York Times Crosswords game, a video game adaptation for the Nintendo DS handheld. The game includes over 1,000 Times crosswords from all days of the week. Various other forms of merchandise featuring the puzzle have been created over the years, including dedicated electronic crossword handhelds that just contain Times crosswords, as well as cookie jars, baseballs, coasters, mousepads, and other items.[12]

Style and conventions

Will Shortz does not write the Times crossword himself. Instead the puzzles are submitted to him as the editor by a wide variety of contributors. A full specification sheet listing the paper's requirements for crossword puzzle submission can be found online (see "External Links") or by writing to the paper. Aside from the increasing difficulty throughout the week, the Monday-Thursday puzzles and the Sunday puzzle always contain a theme, some sort of connection between 3-5 long (usually Across) answers. The theme could consist of a similar type of pun in each theme entry, a similar type of letter substitution or alteration in each entry, or any of numerous other types. Notable dates, e.g., holidays or anniversaries of famous events, are often celebrated with an appropriately themed puzzle, although only two holidays are currently commemorated on a routine annual basis: Christmas and April Fool's Day.[14] The Friday and Saturday puzzles, the most difficult in the paper, are routinely unthemed and are usually "wide-open", with fewer black squares, and more long words. The general maximum word count for a themed weekday puzzle is 78 words, while the maximum for an unthemed Friday or Saturday puzzle is only 72 words.[15] Given the Times's perception as a paper for a generally literate, well-read, and somewhat arty audience, puzzles frequently reference works of literature, art, or classical music, as well as modern TV, movies, or other touchstones of popular culture.[15] The puzzle follows a number of conventions, both for tradition's sake and to aid solvers in completing the crossword:

  • Nearly all the Times crosswords have rotational symmetry: they can be rotated 180 degrees and still keep the same position of the white and black spaces. Rarely, puzzles with vertical or horizontal symmetry only can be found; yet more rare are asymmetrical puzzles, which usually indicate some sort of unusual theme is contained within the puzzle that requires breaking the symmetry rule. This rule has been part of the puzzle since the beginning; when asked why, initial editor Margaret Farrar is said to have responded "Because it is prettier."[5]
  • Any time a clue contains an abbreviation (that is, one more significant than "e.g.") or the tag "abbr.", the answer will also be an abbreviation (e.g. M.D. org. = AMA).
  • Any time a clue is a statement ending in a question mark, the answer is a play on words.
  • Occasionally, themed puzzles will require certain squares to be filled in with a symbol, multiple letters, or a word, rather than one letter (so-called "rebus" puzzles). This symbol/letters/word will be repeated throughout in each themed entry.
  • French-, Spanish-, or Latin-language answers, and more rarely answers from other languages are indicated either by a tag in the clue giving the answer language (e.g., 'Summer: Fr.' = ETE) or by the use in the clue of a word from that language, often a personal or place name(e.g. 'Friends of Pierre' = AMIS or 'The ocean, e.g., in Orleans' = EAU).
  • Clues and answers must always match in part of speech, tense, number, and degree. Thus a plural clue always indicates a plural answer (and the same for singular), a clue in the past tense will always be matched by an answer in the same tense, and a clue containing a comparative or superlative will always be matched by an answer in the same degree. Similarly, slangy content in the answer will be indicated by a clue containing slang or informal speech.
  • The answer word (or any of the answer words, if it consists of multiple words) will never appear in the clue itself. Unlike in some easier puzzles in other outlets, the number of words in the answer is not indicated in the clue itself—so a one-word clue can mean a multiple-word answer.
  • The theme, if any, will be applied consistently throughout the puzzle. e.g., if one of the theme entries is a particular variety of pun, all the theme entries will be of that type.[15]
  • In general, any words that might appear elsewhere in the newspaper, such as well-known brand names, pop culture figures, or current phrases of the moment, are fair game.
  • No entries involving profanity, sad or disturbing topics, or overly explicit answers should be expected, though some have snuck in. The April 3, 2006 puzzle, contained the word SCUMBAG (a slang term for a condom), which had previously appeared in a Times article, quoting people using the word. Shortz apologized and said the term would not appear again.[16][17] The word PENIS also appeared once in a Maleska-edited puzzle, clued as "The __ mightier than the sword."
  • Spoken phrases are always indicated by enclosure in quotation marks, e.g., "Get out of here!" = LEAVE NOW.
  • Short exclamations are sometimes clued by a phrase in square brackets, e.g., "[It's cold!]" = BRR.
  • When the answer needs an additional word in order to fit the clue, it is indicated with a parenthetical phrase or the use of "with." For example, "Think (over)" = MULL, since "think" only means "mull" when paired with the word "over". Similarly, "Become understood, with in" = SINK, since "Sink in" means "to become understood."
  • A good rule of thumb when in doubt of a given clue/answer is to apply the 'substitution test': Create a sentence featuring the clue word(s) and then see if you can substitute the answer and leave the parsing and meaning of the rest of the sentence unchanged. If not, the answer is almost certainly incorrect. For example, if you are unsure of the clue/answer combination "Approach, perhaps" = HIT ON, you could try substituting in the sentence "The shy man jealously watched the smooth talker effortlessly APPROACH women at the party" / "The shy man jealously watched the smooth talker effortlessly HIT ON women at the party." Since the meaning of the sentence remains unchanged, this would be a valid clue/answer combination (although not necessarily the correct one in a given puzzle).

Second Sunday puzzles

In addition to the primary crossword, the Times publishes a second Sunday puzzle each week, of varying types, something that the first crossword editor, Margaret Farrar, saw as a part of the paper's Sunday puzzle offering from the start; she wrote in a memo when the Times was considering whether or not to start running crosswords that "The smaller puzzle, which would occupy the lower part of the page, could provide variety each Sunday. It could be topical, humorous, have rhymed definitions or story definitions or quiz definitions. The combination of these two would offer meat and dessert, and catch the fancy of all types of puzzlers."[5] Currently, every other week is an acrostic puzzle authored by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon, with a rotating selection of other puzzles, including diagramless crosswords, Puns and Anagrams, cryptics (a.k.a. "British-style crosswords"), Split Decisions, Spiral Crosswords, and more rarely, other types (some authored by Shortz himself—the only puzzles he has created for the Times during his tenure as crossword editor).[13] Of these types, the acrostic has the longest and most interesting history, beginning on May 9, 1943, authored by Elizabeth S. Kingsley, who is credited with inventing the puzzle type, and continued to write the Times acrostic until December 28, 1952.[18] From then until August 13, 1967 it was written by Kingsley's former assistant, Doris Nash Wortman; then it taken over by Thomas H. Middleton for a period of over 30 years, until August 15, 1999, when the pair of Cox and Rathvon became just the fourth author of the puzzle in its history.[18] The name of the puzzle also changed over the years, from "Double-Crostic" to "Kingsley Double-Crostic," "Acrostic Puzzle," and finally (since 1991) just "Acrostic."[18]

Records and puzzles of note

Fans of the Times crossword have kept track of a number of records and interesting puzzles (primarily from among those published in Shortz's tenure), including those below. (All puzzles published from October 23, 1996 on are available to online subscribers to the Times crossword.)[13]

  • Fewest words in a daily 15x15 puzzle: 52 words, on Friday, January 21, 2005 by Frank Longo;[19][20] in a Sunday puzzle: 130 words (on five occasions by five different constructors)[21]
  • Most words in a daily puzzle: 86 words on Tuesday, December 23, 2008 by Joe Krozel;[22][20] in a 21x21 Sunday puzzle: 150 words, on June 26, 1994 by Nancy Nicholson Joline and on November 21, 1993 by Peter Gordon (the first Sunday puzzle edited by Will Shortz)[21]
  • Fewest black squares (in a daily 15x15 puzzle): 18 blocks, on Friday, August 22, 2008 by Kevin G. Der.[23][24]
  • Most prolific author: Manny Nosowsky is easily the crossword constructor who has been published most frequently in the Times under Shortz, with 241 puzzles,[25] although other authors may have written more puzzles than that under prior editors. The record for most Sunday puzzles is held by Jack Luzzato, with 119 (including two written under pseudonyms);[26] former editor Eugene T. Maleska wrote 110 himself, including 8 under other names.[26]

A few crosswords have achieved notoriety beyond the community of crossword solvers. Perhaps the most famous is the November 5, 1996 puzzle by Jeremiah Farrell, published on the day of the U.S. presidential election, which has been featured in the movie Wordplay and the book The Crossword Obsession by Coral Amende, as well as discussed by Peter Jennings on ABC News, featured on CNN, and elsewhere.[27][28][7][8] The two leading candidates that year were Bill Clinton and Bob Dole; in Farrell's puzzle one of the long clue/answer combinations read "Title for 39-Across tomorrow" = MISTER PRESIDENT. The remarkable feature of the puzzle is that 39-Across could be answered either CLINTON or BOB DOLE, and all the Down clues and answers that crossed it would work either way (e.g., "Black Halloween animal" could be either BAT or CAT depending on which answer you filled in at 39-Across; similarly "French 101 word" could equal LUI or OUI, etc.).[27]

In another notable Times crossword, 27 year-old Bill Gottlieb proposed to his girlfriend, Emily Mindel, via the crossword puzzle of January 7, 1998, written by noted crossword constructor Bob Klahn.[29][30] The answer to 14-Across, "Microsoft chief, to some" was BILLG, also Gottlieb's name and last initial. 20-Across, "1729 Jonathan Swift pamphlet", was A MODEST PROPOSAL. And 56-Across, "1992 Paula Abdul hit", was WILL YOU MARRY ME. She said yes. The puzzle attracted attention in the AP, an article in the Times itself, and elsewhere.[30]

On May 7, 2007, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, a self-professed long-time fan of the Times crossword, collaborated with noted crossword constructor Cathy Millhauser on an online-only crossword in which Millhauser constructed the grid and Clinton wrote the clues.[11][31] Shortz described the President's work as "laugh out loud" and noted that he as editor changed very little of Clinton's clues, which featured more wordplay than found in a standard puzzle.[11][31]

The Times crossword of Thursday, April 2, 2009, by Brendan Emmett Quigley,[32] featured theme answers that all ran the gamut of movie ratings—beginning with the kid-friendly "G" and finishing with adults-only "X" (which, however is now replaced with the less crossword-friendly NC-17 rating). The seven theme entries were GARY GYGAX, GRAND PRIX, GORE-TEX, GAG REFLEX, GUMMO MARX, GASOLINE TAX, and GENERATION X. In addition, the puzzle contained the clues/answers of ""Weird Al" Yankovic's '__ on Jeopardy'" = I LOST and "I'll take New York Times crossword for $200, __" = ALEX. What made the puzzle notable is that the prior night's episode of the US television show Jeopardy! featured video clues of Will Shortz for five of the theme answers (all but GARY GYGAX and GENERATION X) which the contestants attempted to answer during the course of the show.

At age 14, Ben Pall became the youngest person to have published a crossword in The New York Times.[33]

Newspapers which carry the puzzle

The puzzle is syndicated in over 300 newspapers and journals besides The New York Times itself, including the following (incomplete) list:[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b The New York Times News Syndicate
  2. ^ a b Will Shortz "How to Solve the New York Times Crossword", The New York Times, 2001-04-08. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  3. ^ New York Times crossword puzzle archive--1999 (subscription required). Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  4. ^ (Unsigned Editorial) "Topics of the Times" The New York Times, 1924-11-17. Retrieved on 2009-03-13. (Subscription required.)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Richard F. Shepard "Bambi is a Stag and Tubas Don't Go 'Pah-Pah': The Ins and Outs of Across and Down" The New York Times Magazine, 1992-02-16. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  6. ^ Will Shortz "150th Anniversary: 1851-2001; The Addiction Begins" The New York Times, 2001-11-14. Retrieved on 2009-13-13.
  7. ^ a b Author unknown. "A Puzzling Occupation: Will Shortz, Enigmatologist" Biography of Will Shortz from American Crossword Puzzle Tournament homepage, dated March 1998. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  8. ^ a b Leora Baude "Nice Work if You Can Get It", Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences, 2001-01-19. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  9. ^ Will Shortz "CROSSWORD MEMO; What's in a Name? Five Letters or Less" The New York Times, 2003-03-09. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  10. ^ a b c David Germain "Crossword guru Shortz brings play on words to Sundance" Associated Press, 2006-01-23. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  11. ^ a b c "Bill Clinton pens NY Times' crossword puzzle" Reuters 2007-05-07. Retrieved on 2009-03-13.
  12. ^ a b New York Times store--crossword books
  13. ^ a b c The New York Times crossword puzzle online (subscription required)
  14. ^ Account of 2008 presentation by Will Shortz. Retrieved on 2009-03.13
  15. ^ a b c "New York Times Crossword Specification Sheet"
  16. ^ New York Times Crossword Forum, 2006-04-04
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b c History of the Times acrostic puzzle
  19. ^ January 21, 2005 record low 52-word puzzle (subscription required)
  20. ^ a b
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ record high 86-word puzzle (subscription required)
  23. ^ August 22, 2008 puzzle with record low black square count (subscription required)
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^ a b New York Times Crossword "Database"
  27. ^ a b Amende, Coral (1996) The Crossword Obsession, Berkley Books: New York ISBN 042568157X
  28. ^ Ali Velshi "Business Unusual: Will Shortz", CNN
  29. ^ January 7, 1998 wedding proposal crossword (subscription required)
  30. ^ a b James Barron "Two Who Solved the Puzzle of Love", The New York Times, 1998-01-08. Retrieved on 2009-03-12.
  31. ^ a b Cathy Millhauser (constructor) and Bill Clinton (clues); edited by Will Shortz "Twistin' the Oldies" The New York Times (web only) 2005-05-07. Retrieved on 2009-03-13. (Bill Clinton's Times crossword, available via PDF or Java applet.)
  32. ^ April 2, 2009 puzzle featured on "Jeopardy!" (subscription required)
  33. ^ New Jersey crossword puzzle prodigy is youngest to create puzzle for NY Times, December 27, 2009

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