What Makes a Word ‘Proper English’?

“I think that back in the day, if a crossword editor wanted to decide if some word was puzzle-worthy, they could pull down a dictionary from the shelf and poll their co-workers,” the puzzle constructor Erik Agard wrote in an email interview. As an editor, in the internet age, I can simply Google it, or search it on Twitter or what have you, and get access to a much broader range of perspectives, which makes me less likely to gatekeep things that aren’t in my personal wheelhouse”

The internet also changed who has access to the puzzles. A wave of new puzzlers discovered crosswords through The New York Times Crossword app, which started digitizing the puzzle in 2014. With that, constructors had to take into consideration an audience that suddenly skewed much younger and more diverse, Fagliano said.

The internet has also brought about a more sophisticated conversation around what words constructors should use in puzzles. While Fagliano said that no words were automatically off the table, there has been a growing discourse about what words constructors should or should not use or how they should describe their meaning. In some cases, these debates have brought into question entries that constructors had used for decades.

For example, puzzlers recently brought up that the term “ogle” defines a form of harassment. The term has been used 438 times, according to XWord Info, a database of terms used in The New York Times crossword. Descriptions of the word have gone from “flirt,” in 1942, or “gaze amorously,” in 1994, to “It’s not a good look” or “eye lewdly,” in 2021.

Then there are ways in which puzzlers have clued terms that may not have been inclusive to marginalized communities. Fagliano noted that “wife,” for instance, was used primarily as a counterpart to the word “husband,” thus putting the idea of same-sex spouses outside of the norm of puzzles.

With the internet popularizing words from certain cultures, puzzles have also arguably become more inclusive. This shift can help more people feel seen in crossword puzzles, but constructors also point out that popularization can blunt a linguistic cultural phenomenon. Constructors run the risk of misappropriation, changing a term’s original meaning without recognizing the history and cultures of those who coined it.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Anna Shechtman, a New Yorker puzzle constructor, said. The number of crosswords created “means that the sort of quantity and quality of inclusive representation is just, like, is maximized in a huge way. And that’s really exciting. On the other hand, it means that the opportunities by cultural appropriation are also that much more.”


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