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….
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).
My wife and I regularly do the NY Times Sunday puzzle, so we’re aware of this trend; while I regret the loss of the old standbys, change is a good thing and keeps us on our toes. And if you’ve never seen an etui (I hadn’t), here‘s a nice picture. (Thanks, Trevor!)