ETUI is often the answer for the crossword clue
[Needle case] or [Needle holder]

Perhaps my favorite bit of crosswordese is ETUI: a small, fancy word for a small, fancy [Needle case].

As such, I hope you’ll indulge a slightly longer post than usual.

Once ubiquitous in and out of puzzles, the [Ornamental case] has gone out of style in both. This is the first time ETUI has appeared in a New York Times puzzle since June, 2019, a year and a half ago.

Number of times ETUI has been a answer in 2018, 2019, and 2020 New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Universal, Newsday, and Canadiana crosswords.

What is an Etui?

Etuis are (were?) generally oblong, portable, pocket-size containers for PINS [Spare pieces?], needles, and thread, and often a small pair of scissors and a thimble.

Longer etuis might also contains a long threading needle known as a bodkin. Despite their practical purpose of fixing clothes in a pinch, etuis could be quite extravagant.

“Etui” has also been used to describe the similarly sized and shaped cases for wax seals; this one‘s pretty great.

Today, less fancy but equally ITSY [Wee] sewing etuis can be found on ETSY [Crafty site?].

According to clues like the one in today’s Times, “etui” can also be used as a [Case for small toiletries]. That usage seems a much rarer case, so to speak, but lo, here’s one for sale on Etsy. (Then again, it looks like it’s posted by someone who grew up in Germany, which might account for using “etui.” After all, ETUI is also used there for things like a [German iPod holder].)

In France, étui is used in a general way for “case,” especially as a glasses case, a case for a cell phone, a slip case for a book, or as a [French CD holder]: a jewel case.

via Etsy

Okay, so here’s a belated New Year‘s resolution: to start calling my toilietries bag an etui. It seems another term is “Dopp kit,” possibly an eponym, which as far as I can tell has never been a crossword answer. Another synonymous term has turned up in clues for ETUI: [Ditty bag’s cousin]. Not so sure how I geel about “ditty bag”…

Ooh, looks like a toiletry kit can also be called a “sponge bag.” Yeah, no.

etui ditty bag diddy bag
a P Diddy bag

The Strange Etymological Case of ETUI, quint crossword answer or 2000 year-old ne’er-do-well (hint: it’s both)

Perhaps it’s fitting that etui be used for men’s bathroom kits. For while etui might sound a bit TWEE [A bit too-too, to a Brit], the word has a long, rugged past and has traveled a long way. In fact, étui in French can also mean “holster.” And its linguistic backstory reads a bit like a rap sheet.

[The case of the seamstress]

R. S. Jones, The New York Times – Feb. 7, 1987

Moving backwards, the etymological priors for “etui” include a period when it was the French word for “sheath,” having previously broken out of estui, an Old French word for “prison.” It landed there after a earlier STINT [Spell] as estuier, meaning “to keep.”

Some etymologists trace “etui” all the way back to an innocent, promising childhood as a Latin studere, meaning “to be diligent.”

If so, then “etui” might have turned out like its nice, thoughtful relative, the English “student.” Instead it was carrying knives and and out of French prisons.

Finally, etui arrived in America, where a diligent English student might look it up in a dictionary. And there it is: aptly sitting right atop “etymologist,” as if daring someone to dig up the dirt on its violent, villainous past.

ETUI crossword answer etymology clue case

The the proximity of the two words seems especially apt in that English reached up and plucked ETUI and made it—just as constructor Greg Johnson wonderfully did in his clue:

[Word in the etymology of “tweezers”]

Greg Johnson, Newsday, May 18, 2019

So it’s literally true that ETUI is a [Case for tweezers and such].

Cracking the “case” of crosswordese: ETUI as

Of the 370 occasions The New York Times featured the anwer ETUI, the clue has included the word “case”–as it did today–about 78% of the time. In fact, over 40% of the time it’s been either [Small case], [Needle case], or [Needlecase]. What shabby clues for such a potentially captivating object. Other common clues for ETUI are

  • Fancy case
  • Vanity case
  • Sewing case
  • Sundries holder
  • Case for notions
  • Tiny-scissors holder
  • Small accessory case
  • Decorative sewing case
  • Needle and thimble case


The notable exception, oddly enough, is [Special case], which can be either ETUI or ONER.

A giveaway word of this sort, or something like it, often gets regularly connected to clues for the most dated, least generally-known crosswordese. Since even many regular solvers who’ve filled ETUI into scores of puzzles may not be able to readily identify an etui in real life, words like “case” become shorthand.

Sadly, since the same brief and nondescript clues like “Needle case” get recylced, and as there are so few instnaces to see an etui in real life–or even read the word “etui” in real life–the answer ETUI is probably better known than the thing itself.

That is, it’s probably the case that more Americans know what ETUI is (a crossward answer for some kind of sewing case that) than what an etui is.

[A case of pins and needles]

Brendan Emmett Quigley, The New York Times – June 18, 1999

This all culminated back in 1992, when ETUI reached the pinnacle (or nadir) of crosswordese when it arrived in a Times puzzle as [Crosswordese case]. The defining characteristics of the etui were reduced to two things:

  1. being a “case”
  2. being “crosswordese.”

The etui’s very use—le raison d’être d’étui—was no longer to hold pins but to be held in a puzzle. To put it in modern parlance, it had gone full crosswordese.

Which brings me back to today’s Times–and the future

So while its wierd look and interesting etymological twists–not least the tweezers spinoff–make ETUI one of my favorite answers, I was especially pleased to see it clued as it was today: in any way that’s not a [Small case] or [Needle case].

Still, it’s not exactly a thrilling clue. And the result is that ETUI doesn’t feel like an interesting answer–just a sort of needlessly obscure one. As a result, some solvers were quite put off by its inclusion.

So, if I may be so bold, my recommedation to constructors and editors, is to go ahead and use whatever answer words you want, but use clues capable of making the answers feel interesting. These clues need not be hard.

Here are three from my own stach for ETUI. Feel free to use them. Or better yet, outdo them, as writers of the pull-out clues on this page did by a mile.

  • Previously popular petite pin holder
  • Where to find a needle in a handbag
  • Portable toiletries

[It has its notions]

Patrick Merrell, The New York Times – June 24, 2004

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