In today’s NY Times, Charles Kurzman presents some depressing news (if you’re a fan of cosmopolitanism):
With the permission of Will Shortz, the Times’s crossword puzzle editor, I recently downloaded all of the newspaper’s crosswords from February 1942, when the puzzle began, through the end of 2015. I created an algorithm to search all 2,092,375 pairs of clues and answers for foreign language words and place names outside the United States.
The results are imperfect, since the puzzles can be tricky and there is a lot of overlap between English and foreign words. But the broad trend is clear. The puzzle today uses one-third fewer non-English clues and answers than it did at its peak in 1966, and makes two-thirds fewer international references than its peak in 1943.
For many years, the puzzle expected educated Americans to know the German word for “with” (mit) and the Latin word for “man” (vir), for example. These words have all but disappeared from the puzzle. Solvers were expected to know details about America’s military operations, such as “Mountain battlefield” in 1943 (etna) and (misleadingly, since the answer is actually Japanese) “Forever!: Korean battle shout” in 1951 (banzai). Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, by contrast, appear in the puzzle barely more often than before the United States sent troops to each country. Since the 1990s, puzzlers were occasionally asked to recognize “Burkina ____” but over the last few years, they were given additional help, “Burkina ____ (African land)” and “Burkina ____ (Niger neighbor)” (the answer is “Faso”). […]
So are we going to see Vietnamese or Korean in The New York Times crossword?
“I want the puzzle to reflect our common culture,” Mr. Shortz notes, meaning that the answers and clues should have at least entered the general conversation before they appear. After a moment’s reflection, Mr. Shortz noted that the puzzle did include a Vietnamese word last year. The clue was “Vietnamese soup” (pho).
“This is a word I did not know a few years ago, but it has now become embedded enough in American culture that I can expect American readers to know it. With Vietnamese restaurants in many cities, it has become mainstreamed,” he said.
Recently, the puzzle added “Vietnamese sandwich” (banh mi).
Kurzman sums up, “When we turn from the New York Times news pages to the puzzle page, the rest of the world fades away.” There are interesting tidbits in the rest of the article, as well as some very cool charts.