The following article appeared in the New York Times of October 8, 1979, and was written by Eugene Maleska, who was the third editor of the NYT crossword puzzles (from 1977 to 1993). His predecessors in the role were Margaret Farrar (1942-1968) and Will Weng (1968-1977), and his successor is Will Shortz (1993-present). I came across this article recently and enjoyed it so much that I thought it deserved wider attention, but the version of it on the NYT site was created digitally, using OCR, and contains many errors, so I have taken the liberty of transcribing it from a facsimile of the newspaper (also available in the NYT archives).
CONFESSIONS OF A CROSSWORD EDITOR
by Eugene T. Maleska
Calepin! The word leaped out at me from a puzzle submitted by an excellent constructor during my first week as Will Weng’s successor editing The New York Times crossword puzzle. The definition read: “Dictionary.” Never in all my years as a crosswords constructor‐editor had I come across that noun. But a quick check in an unabridged lexicon revealed that my constructor was indeed correct. Wonderful! I had learned a new word.
Eagerly I scanned the crossings. All easy words and simple clues: even a neophyte would have no trouble with calepin. I confidently published the puzzle.
A few days later, I received a letter of complaint from an attorney who averred that the new puzzle editor was making up words. The correspondent had called the New York Public Library and had been told that calepin was nonexistent. In a gentle reply, I assured the lawyer that I would never resort to such skulduggery and that he would find calepin on page 378 of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Edition). With an unseen twinkle in my eye, I concluded: “By the way, that volume is considered to be the best calepin on the market.”
At least the lawyer had attempted to look before he leaped. But it is amazing how many solvers will take pen or typewriter in hand and send a “Gotcha!” letter upbraiding me for “mistakes” I have not made.
For example, a few months ago, Ostia was defined as “Pompey’s port.” A New England man chided me for misplacing the ruined city near Naples. My reply suggested that perhaps the last two letters of “Pompey” in his copy of the puzzle had been blurred, causing him to confuse Pompeii with the Roman general who often sailed from Ostia.
Speaking of cities, another puzzle contained the clue “Site of a Golden Temple.” The solution was Benares. Five people of Hindu background sent letters — some rather sarcastic. The answer, they informed me, should have been Amritsar. They were correct, but so was I. They had forgotten, or had not known, that the Bisheshwar at Benares is also called “Golden Temple.”
When Will Weng passed the black-and-white reins over to me three years ago, he said “Crosswords are only a pastime, but you are about to discover how many thousands of people take them so seriously that you would think they’re a matter of life and death.” He was right. During the long newspaper strike in 1978, scores of lugubrious letters poured in from addicts who confessed that they needed a “fix.” Many of them revealed that they bought the newspaper only because of their habit of starting the day with a cup of coffee, a pencil and a puzzle.
Yes, solvers, whether male or female, are rather stubborn. A correspondent from Pennsylvania berated me for using indexes instead of indices. When I replied that my six unabridged dictionaries give indexes as the preferred plural, he refused to relent. Regardless of what my lexicographers proclaimed, he would stick to his indices.
That reminds me of the mumpsimus incident. Ordinarily, I avoid archaic words, but when a constructor sent me a puzzle featuring mumpsimus, I decided it was time to revive the obsolete noun. The definition read: “Diehard.”
Dozens of letters inquired: “Where did you get that word?” As in the case of calepin, I referred the fans to “W2.” There the story is told that an aged priest, when corrected for saying “mumpsimus” (instead of “sumpsimus”) in the service, declared that he had said “mumpsimus” for 30 years and would not change it for that “new” word.
Somewhere out there is a professor of linguistics who wrote me a long letter alleging that fillet of sole, in a puzzle was incorrect. He insisted on filet. When I explained that filet is French and that its proper use in a phrase is filet de sole, he sent me a retraction. Obviously, he is not a mumpsimus.
Use of unusual entries or clues always gets the attention of puzzle fans. Some are delighted; others become irate. For example, a solver, who apparently keeps a running record of definitions, congratulated me last year for using six different clues for the word Este. He said he was sick of seeing “Noble Italian family.” In contrast, my clues for nest (“Nutcracker’s suite”) and for noon (“When both hands are up”) brought a mixture of praises and imprecations. The appreciative wrote, “How clever!” The malcontents cried, “Stop showing off!”
This is a constant dilemma for an editor of what is reputed to be the acme of American puzzles. How far does one go with puns, quips and unusual clues? For example, here are six definitions for ironer:
1. Laundry employee.
2. Board worker.
3. One doing Tuesday’s job.
4. He has pressing problems.
5. Housewife, at times.
6. User of a mangle.
Any one of the above is liable to criticism from one type of solver or another. There are some who prefer the same definitions straight out of the dictionary, day after day.
This stimulus‐response coterie feels comfortable filling in words with no strain on the brain. Another group likes to be given a clue that will enlarge their scope of knowledge but does not attempt to be cutesy or humorous. These middle-of-the-roaders say, “Teach us but don’t tickle us.” And finally, there are the far-outs who crave clever twists. Bored with what they call “the same old stuff,” they often graduate to puns-and-anagrams puzzles or cryptics in the British style. Here are some typical words along with the preferences of the stimulus‐response type, the middle-of-the-roaders and the far‐outs, respectively:
ORE: native mineral; bornite or stibnite; vein’s glory.
LINT: cloth ravelings; washday byproduct; scourge of serge.
TEA: aromatic beverage; gunpowder or jasmine; Boston jetsam.
ALIBI: plausible excuse; whodunit feature; “slip cover.”
HOBO: tramp; bindlestiff; “roads scholar.”
CRAB: crustacean; king or hermit; fiddler on the reef.
Faced with such a wide range of motivations and desires among solvers, my policy has been to lean heavily toward the middle group while seeking to satisfy the others here and there. One thing is certain: a crossword‐puzzle editor cannot please all of the people all of the time.
The problem extends far beyond the choice of definitions. The words and phrases in the diagram, the crossings and the theme of the puzzle all present dilemmas when the clientele is so large and so varied in intellect and experience. Several months ago, a correspondent from Florida threatened to organize a solvers’ strike against me because the puzzles were too hard. In the same mail, a gentleman from Park Avenue complained bitterly that I had taken all the fun out of his hobby because the puzzles were ridiculously easy. I duplicated both letters, effaced the names and addresses and sent the Florida letter to Park Avenue and vice versa. In each case, of course, I included a note concerning my predicament.
Incidentally, both critics had written: “Bring back Will Weng!” When I showed him the letters, he consoled me with the fact that throughout his eight years as editor, he had occasionally received protests that screamed: “Bring back Margaret Farrar!” Only last month I, too, was sent such a letter. The correspondent expressed a deep longing for the “straight puzzles” edited by “Margaret Webster” (sic transit …).
To such people, I try to explain that times and tastes change. An editor can only seek to meet the wishes of the majority of solvers. My mail indicates that the Sunday fans prefer tricky, tongue-in-cheek themes to pedestrian pabulum, but they don’t want to be frustrated by super‐clever offerings.
In that connection, I once published a Sunday puzzle called “Unglue the Clues.” One definition read: “Stonewalled.” The answer was boulderstreetmcmahon. The solver was required to separate the clue into three parts: “stone-wall-Ed.” Seven or eight other definitions of that type were scattered throughout the puzzle.
Well, all hell broke loose for the next two weeks. Hundreds of letters poured in. Typical was the statement from a man in Connecticut. “I’ve completed the puzzle, but what in tarnation does it mean? How does “rigamarole” work out to be ssrcapitalkettlepart? Please explain before I go off my rocker!” (“Riga-Ma-role.”)
Oddly enough, that puzzle also evoked paeans from a number of fans who had been astute enough to catch the hint in the title. They had unglued the clues.
Titles, by the way, are often an important part of a featured Sunday puzzle. Recently, one was called “Strip Tees.” It had nothing to do with ecdysiasts or golf. One definition read: “Tim’s tune.” The answer was ipoehroughheulips (“Tiptoe Through the Tulips”). And “Nondrinker” became eeoaler.
A few years ago, a Sunday puzzle was called “Penny Wise.” The solver was being subtly warned that any time the word cent appeared, ¢ was called for. Thus, the answer to “100th anniversary” was ¢tennial.” In rebuttal, one fan sent me a terse note: “Non¢s! URYY4ME!” Another wrote: “ ‘Twas Heaven¢!”
Those responses are typical of the mixed reaction to crosswords with a rebus theme. The same is true of pun‐filled puzzles, stepquotes and doggerel. Each type has its rabid aficionados, but they seem to be outnumbered. Hence, discretion dictates that such creations be published now and then as a change of pace. But last spring, I inadvertently ran puzzles containing verses on three successive Sundays. A goodly number of complaints followed. I especially like the one that advised: “Your puzzles are getting verse and verse!”
Speaking of verses, several solvers send me their comments in rhyme; others use crisscross patterns in which the message alternates horizontally and vertically. One intrepid man composed a letter using about 20 words in the puzzle to which he was reacting. It read something like this: “If you 6‐D, I can 14‐A today’s puzzle, you 32‐D be 19A of your cotton‐pickin’ 27‐D.”
Sometimes I receive letters signed by as many as 15 people working in an office. They duplicate the daily puzzles and solve them during the coffee break or lunch hour. And in a high school in New Jersey, two teachers work together during their free periods and keep a solving‐speed record, which they transmit to me along with comments on the simplicity or difficulty of individual puzzles.
Then there is an 80-year-old woman in the backwoods of New Hampshire who has spent many years laboriously copying every word and definition in daily and Sunday puzzles. She has filled up six loose‐leaf notebooks and she writes that the puzzles have kept her from “going insane.”
Scholars write, too. A geologist in Maine sent me a four-page discourse on the difference between a sandy deposit and silt. And the entire English department of an eminent college in New England sent me a “Gotcha!” missive when I defined Astrophel as “An elegy by Spenser.” They had been teaching Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella,” but they had not realized that Spenser had commemorated his friend in a poem of his own.
When I equated a T square with a ruler, an architect in Philadelphia wrote a long poem on the difference between the two.
A New York City teacher of Spanish was sure I had made a mistake in defining Ebro as “Longest river in Spain.” The Tagus, he avowed, was longer. Yes, but the Tagus flows from Spain into Portugal and is the longest Iberian river. In deference to the instructor, however, I have since defined the Ebro as “Longest river entirely in Spain.”
An authority on football recently sent me into a tizzy. He wrote: “You ought to keep abreast. Phil Villapiano is no longer a Raider.” A phone call to the Raiders’ headquarters brought a reply that was brief and to the point: “No, we haven’t traded Villapiano.”
Keeping abreast is one of the problems in this business, especially in sports. My penchant for specificity sometimes gets me into trouble. Recently, I had a narrow escape. A Sunday puzzle defined Staub as “Rusty of the Tigers.” Luckily, just before the printers set to work I learned that the redheaded baseball player had been traded to the Montreal Expos.
Since Shah and Iran are crossword standbys and since most puzzles are edited several months in advance, the reader can imagine what alterations had to be made when Khomeini succeeded Pahlevi.
It is often easy to avoid such pitfalls. Most crossword-puzzle editors settle for generalities. Thus, Eban is usually defined as “Israeli statesman.” In an effort to be different, I called him “Israel’s first Ambassador to U.S.” Wrong! Abba Eban was Eliahu Elath’s successor — a fact taught to me by at least 10 “Gotcha!” fans.
Deeds are always “exploits” or “feats” in puzzles. I remembered “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” In a sleepy moment, I defined the word as “Jimmy Stewart role.” More “Gotchas!“ It was Gary Cooper. One fan noted that he had caught Will Weng in the same error.
Senator George Norris, I was sure, came from Tennessee. After all, the T.V.A. had been established largely because of his efforts. Again, I should not have trusted my memory. Norris was a Nebraskan. Cornhuskers were not the only ones who chided me on that gaffe.
A few days ago, I wrote to a fan that if a fairy godmother granted me three wishes as an editor my first would be infallibility. On an average, more than 700 definitions need to be edited each week. If one strives for originality, and variety, the likelihood that mistakes will occur is greatly increased.
Take ENE, for instance. The ordinary definition is “compass direction.” But I chose to be specific. I described it as “Dir. from Paris to Rennes.” A lumber manufacturer in Connecticut who had just returned from a vacation in France let me know that I had reversed the locations. Rennes lies west‐southwest of Paris!
Later, the same man thought he had another “Gotcha!” when I defined Reno as “NNW of L.A.” Amazingly, that happens to be true!
My first error cost me dearly. I described Bambi as a doe. More than a score of Salten-Disney lovers gave me a congenial what‐for on that one. Then I mixed up Pope Leo IV with Pope Leo VI. It was astonishing to discover how many solvers were conversant with Vatican history.
Old movies did me in again. I gave the part of Mata Hari to Dietrich. All the Garbo fans clobbered me with delight.
Worse yet, I defined spun as “operated a loom.” How could I know that America has so many ardent weavers?
The beat goes on. Recently, I called Steely Dan “a popular singer.” No! It’s a rock group! The moral is: avoid areas where your knowledge is meager.
But I was sure that “the proof is in the pudding” and that “money is the root of all evil.” Wrong again! The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that wicked root is “love of money.”
Oh, for a fairy godmother.
But one mistake I did not make is the introduction of the iynx into puzzles on April 1, 1977. The definition was wryneck (a woodpecker). Bird lovers from all over the country besieged me with questions. “Does the iynx really exist or are you pulling our April Fool legs?” One solver sent a telegram: “THE IYNX STYNX.”
A fan from Manhattan was typical of those who wrote: “What country? What is special about the iynx?” I replied that the iynx belongs to the Jynx genus and that both words are of Greek origin. Hence, I suggested, it may be possible that there are lots of iynxes flying around Athens and pecking away at the trees there.
The hoopoe gave me a hard time, too. My encyclopedia indicated that it is a bird with “filthy habits.” When I so defined it, the lovers of our feathered friends asked me what right I had to denigrate the poor hoopoe. Really, I don’t give a hoot either way about hoopoes, jacamars, jacanas or even chuck-will’s-widows. My role is middleman, the generalist who transmits what I find in reference books to the solving public.
That public, I must conclude, is remarkably kind. From February 1977 (when I took over this post) until now, I have received only two poison-pen letters. Most of the correspondents have been tolerant when I have made errors, generous in their praise and gentle in their criticisms. When I reply to them, I usually close with “Pax, amor et felicitas”- and I mean it.