Times Xwords Wax Insular.

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.


  1. I would not have guessed that the Times was using “Banzai” in its crossword in 1951 – not a few of its readers probably heard that “battle shout” under much more unpleasant circumstances only a few years earlier. (But I guess if they thought it was Korean that wouldn’t have occurred to them.)

  2. David Marjanović says

    …Korean doesn’t even have a [z]…

  3. Shortz uses the word ‘culture’– which, maybe unintentionally, offers a better explanation for Kurzman’s observations. In fact, current NYT puzzles often contain pop culture references that older puzzles back in the Farrar/Maleska era would never have used. These days, clues like those cited in the article would be considered ‘bad fill’.

    Edited to add: As long as I have the opportunity, I’ll add that crossword puzzle style reflects current cultural truths, but in a fun-house mirror. I’d be cautious about drawing conclusions from cruciverbal fashions.

  4. J. W. Brewer says

    This makes me wonder about a different question: what %age of “words” used in NYT crossword puzzles would not qualify as “words” for Scrabble purposes, and what sort of shifts over time have there been in that %age? (Obviously one could view the discrepancy as Scrabble being too restrictive or crosswords being too loose or a bit of both or even as not a problem because different skills are being selected for.)

  5. Well, phrases aren’t Scrabble-playable, but they are common in crosswords. Traditionally you got a notice of this, like “2 words”, but you don’t nowadays. (Of course I am speaking of conventional American crosswords, not the related but very different British/cryptic crosswords.)

  6. Jim (another one) says

    ““Forever!: Korean battle shout” in 1951 (banzai).”

    This is a really, really offensive mistake. “Banzai” is Japanese.

  7. ə de vivre says

    The most surprising thing in the article for me was that Will Shortz hadn’t heard of pho until “a few years ago”. Do they not have Vietnamese people in New York?

    This is a really, really offensive mistake. “Banzai” is Japanese.
    And yet this is still 10 years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, casual racism towards Asians is unfortunately a well-respected American tradition.

  8. This is a really, really offensive mistake. “Banzai” is Japanese.

    When does a mistake become a really, really offensive mistake? Also, are you aware that 1951 was six years after the end of WWII? Do you really think political correctness towards Germans and Japanese was a thing then?

  9. J. W. Brewer says

    Contemporaneous American narratives of the Korean War sometimes used “banzai attack” (or “‘banzai’ attack”) to refer to a particular tactic employed by the enemy that seemed reminiscent of Japanese WW2 practice, but without necessarily implying the specific word was shouted by the attackers, and that usage could have led to some misunderstanding on the home front. There are also apparently a few scattered contemporaneous reports of North Korean attackers actually yelling “banzai” while attacking, which may or may not be accurate (certainly some of the North Korean troops had previously served in the Japanese forces during the prior war, or might have otherwise heard second-hand that yelling this particular phrase might unnerve American troops, but it’s also plausible that American listeners might have misconstrued some Korean word or phrase being yelled, even if it would not have been thought a close homophone for “banzai” if heard in a low-stress non-combat environment).

  10. I don’t know how it was back then, but in today’s North Korea there’s a huge stigma against anyone whose ancestors are thought to have supported the Japanese.

  11. J. W. Brewer says

    FWIW, ethnic Vietnamese are not particularly numerous in NYC all things considered and certainly not as prominent a part of the local ethnic-restaurant scene as in California or in the Houston or Washington DC metro areas. Although there’s now a pretty good banh mi place on 3d Avenue in midtown. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._cities_with_large_Vietnamese-American_populations.

  12. @Hat: I took Jim’s point to be that It would have ben really offensive to Koreans to attribute a Japanese word to them. And since it was only six years after WWII, it makes me wonder if the author of the clue was fifteen years old.

  13. J. W. Brewer says

    Lazar: and probably in South Korea as well, but I would tend to assume neither side had fully retconned the messiness of their actual history by 1950 and that the Communists were probably not so pure as to refuse to avail themselves of the services of anyone with actual prior military experience.

  14. @Hat: I took Jim’s point to be that It would have ben really offensive to Koreans to attribute a Japanese word to them.

    Maybe, but it just strikes me as importing today’s notions of correctness and offense into the past. And I find the idea of moral outrage concerning a 1951 crossword fairly risible. (Also, it’s quite possible a lot of Americans didn’t know there was such a thing as the Korean language; Korea had been part of Japan for many decades, and Japan had officially imposed the Japanese language pretty thoroughly. Many people may have just assumed Koreans spoke Japanese.)

  15. Jean-Michel says

    @ Lazar, J.H. Brewer: The Kim Il-sung regime, at least, wasn’t particularly hard on Japanese collaborators (note that his younger brother Kim Yŏng-ju served in the Imperial Army and supposedly even called upon Kim Il-sung to surrender, though of course none of that means he was a willing collaborator). The North Korean cultural apparatus in particular had a number of former collaborators in high-placed roles; the most notable was probably Han Sŏ-rya, who went practically overnight from writing panegyrics to the Emperor to writing panegyrics to Kim Il-sung—he was supposedly the first to describe Kim as “our sun” 우리의 태양, all the way back in 1946.

  16. If one chooses to interpret “Korean battle shout” as “battle shout in Korea” rather than “battle shout in Korean”, it becomes slightly less inaccurate.

  17. Excellent point, and I’ll bet that’s what they had in mind.

  18. As far as the content of foreign terms is concerned, I guess political and/or social developments should be taken into account. Could a word like “Taliban” or “jihad” make it to a 1960’s crossword puzzle? The same could perhaps be said about “pheng shui”, “jacuzzi” or “Tiananmen (Square)”. On the other hand, why should anyone nowadays be expected to know of an Asian battle cry of the Cold War era? Whatever new or exotic is promoted by and repeated in the media is bound to become part of everyday vocabulary, the rest gradually fades away from memory and from recreation.

  19. @Ariadne: I would be very surprised if somebody who did the New York Time crossword did not know the word “banzai.” It’s very famous, though not from the Cold War but the Second World War.

  20. Whatever new or exotic is promoted by and repeated in the media is bound to become part of everyday vocabulary, the rest gradually fades away from memory and from recreation.

    Yes, but the point is not that particular words have faded, but that the entire category of foreign items has drastically decreased.

  21. @Brett: Right. ‘Banzai’ clued as, e.g., ‘Japanese battle cry’ would be regarded as a gimme in an NYT puzzle. Or, any crossword puzzle, for that matter.

  22. While it wouldn’t affect the bulk statistics, I wonder how the database coded the puzzle from November 5, 1996. (It had two solutions, one with “CLINTON ELECTED,” one with “BOB DOLE ELECTED.”)

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