What is Crosswordese?

OPINIONS differ on just which answers qualify as “crosswordese” and why.

When the word “CROSSWORDESE” once appeared as an answer in a Times puzzle, the clue eschewed defining it, preferring to cite two prime examples and the typical response to them: [Etui or oast (tsk-tsk!)].

David Steinberg, the Lead Puzzle Editor for AndrewsMcMeel and editor of the UniversalCrossword, says that “Crosswordese words are typically short (three to five letters long) and full of common letters such as vowels. Personally, I have no problem with crosswordese words that I consider widely known, such as OREO, ERIE, and ODE, though I try to avoid crosswordese words that I only know from solving puzzles, such as OAST, ALEE, and ERNE.”

Jeff Chen, who until recently helped run the indispensable crossword blog XWord Info concurred: “‘Cosswordese’ is a vague term, covering everything from esoteric terminology like ADIT that virtually no one knows, to vocab that’s seen in crosswords disproportionately compared to real life, like ONO. I’m fine with the latter, but the former is terrible. No one should have to wade through a mire of ESNE, ETUI, and ORLE to achieve their victorious finish.”

Both Steinberg and Chen sort crosswordese into two groups, something like the “terrible” and the “tolerable.” And Chen also charts a useful track by using the words “from” and “to.” This suggests a range of answers between the likes of ADIT and ONO.

For our purposes, let’s think of crosswordese as answers that seem to appear more frequently in crossword puzzles than in our daily lives, and that exist across a spectrum.

On the one end might be OREO and ODE, widely familiar answers that nevertheless recur with outsize frequency in crosswords. At the other end might be ORLE and OAST, which turn up rarely in crosswords. Yet they practically never in popular discourse.

Closely related to crosswordese are so-called “repeaters,” answers like ARE and TOO and even ARETOO. All three are frequent in both everyday usage and crossword puzzles, but which can be just as tricky as unfamiliar answers thanks to crosswords’ difficult clues. To highlight the difference, compare ARETOO—which probably arrives about as often in puzzles as in normal parlance—and ARTOO, which plays a much larger role in puzzles than in most folks’ daily diction.

This site will draw from the entire swath but focus on the most useful or interesting examples. As a rule, I’ll reserve the term “crosswordese” for the true oddball answers encountered least IRL (“in real life”), applying it to any such linguistic IMP individually or for the [Small handful] of them collectively. While grids have become increasingly successful at ridding themselves of these most obscure and obnoxious cases, typically at least a couple are still bound to rear their heads in any puzzle, causing a [Little pain in the you-know-where].

Together, this collection of answers might form a sort of KEYRING that solvers can attach to their belts. The jangly, jagged little keys at first seem indistinguishable, their uses enigmatic. But once recognized, they represent the difference between gaining access to all the delights of crosswords and feeling locked out in the cold.

I’ll TEND to celebrate crosswordese as a set, though not necessarily everything in it. Here and there, I’ll pick a few examples whose reputations I’ll try to burnish. And I’ll highlight others I believe crosswords should banish. But in GENERAL, I’ll leave such value judgments to YOU, the READER.