Everything you ever wanted to know about the NY Times crossword puzzle
December 7, 2008 4:03 PM   Subscribe

XWord Info soberly describes itself as containing "data about NYT puzzles dating back to November, 1993, covering the entire time that Will Shortz has been Puzzle Editor," understating the cornucopia of geeky goodness within. See any crossword over that time. Look up every appearance of a word with every clue ever used for it. See the most frequently used 500 words, and the most popular by length.

Look at unusual puzzles: those with fewest and most black blocks (with thumbnails of fewest and most); those with most and least words; the most frequently used grid patterns, and examples of grid art; pangrams (puzzles using each letter at least once), and puzzles using the fewest letters (the least is ten); puzzles whose words have the highest Scrabble score; or the freshest (according to a measure of how unusual the words are.)

Check stats for the crossword constructors: the most prolific (Wordplay and the Simpsons may have misled you -- Merle Reagle doesn't make the list); which constructors' puzzles have appeared by which day of the week, and which have "hit for the cycle", had a puzzle on each day of the week; sorted by Shortz number (their order of publication by Shortz.)

And there's even more. You don't have to be a crossword fan to enjoy it, but it doesn't hurt. Essentially, it is to the NY Times crossword puzzle what J-Archive is to Jeopardy! (previously discussed.)

Previously: 1 Across: Mathowie's community blog.
posted by Zed_Lopez (42 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I love that there are people who love stuff this much. Neat.
posted by dpx.mfx at 4:14 PM on December 7, 2008


ZOMG
posted by cmoj at 4:36 PM on December 7, 2008


Etui, Brutus?
posted by cogneuro at 4:51 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is the NYT crossword? Seriously? It's completely shit. You might as well do a wordsearch puzzle.

Here's a nice, frustrating crossword clue:
Player getting six, duck, then fifty batting is test opener (9)1.
There's real pleasure in solving that! The setter misdirects you towards cricket, then requires you to peer closely at every word or phrase in the sentence, considering each one in isolation until you spot a pattern, then stumping (pun intended) you again by returning to cricket (batting) and switching away from Roman numerals (duck), only to make you raise an eyebrow with a two letter word in the clue that forms two letters of the word, no cryptic nonsense required. And the NYT gives you, to pick an example at random:
Rap's Dr. ___ (3)
Who could it be?! Could it be Dre?! Weak.

1. The answer is 'violinist'. Six = "VI", duck (in cricket terminology) = "0", fifty = "L", batting = "in", is = "is" (duh!), test opener = "t" (as in the opening letter of the phrase).
posted by jack_mo at 5:10 PM on December 7, 2008


I have a great-aunt who can solve the Sunday times puzzle in pen. In ONE Sunday afternoon.

She is kind of my hero and I also kind of hate her.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:20 PM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]


The right mark with a sacred sound (6)1.
posted by king walnut at 5:52 PM on December 7, 2008


Answer: RANDOM.
posted by king walnut at 5:53 PM on December 7, 2008


It made my day last week when I found DA Trippers, a blog dedicated to the SMH/Cryptic compiler David Astle.
posted by zamboni at 6:06 PM on December 7, 2008


SMH/Age cryptic, even.
posted by zamboni at 6:06 PM on December 7, 2008


Exclamation suggests no odor of sanctity about this. (4,4)
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:40 PM on December 7, 2008


Ah, great. I had been meaning to search out a list of common crossword answers.

I've been toying with the idea that common crossword words would make nice machine names. You know how network admins often try to come up with themes for machine naming? Star Trek characters, mythical creatures, mountains, um... Star Trek TNG characters, etc.

Many frequent crossword answers are brief, uncommon words. They're plentiful, memorable, quick to type, and most good selections won't be confused in conversation. Very RFC1178 compliant.
posted by rlk at 6:40 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


(8)
posted by tellurian at 7:03 PM on December 7, 2008


Clueless
posted by tellurian at 7:04 PM on December 7, 2008


British crosswords are also nice. But it is a different beast. Scoring a NYTimes crossword puzzle for not be a British style crossword is like scorning a Mozart scherzo for not being Mahler.

The Sunday crosswords are, of course, much easier than the Saturday ones; they're just bigger (and usually not as interesting by far). I can often do a Saturday puzzle in under an hour, unless I get totally stuck with it, which, alas, happens more often than I care to admit...
posted by Casuistry at 8:03 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


Great link! Thanks!
posted by jasper411 at 8:32 PM on December 7, 2008


Much more NYT crossword geekery here. Sharp is more than a little arrogant, but I am hooked on his blog. Also, the NYT Sunday puzzle in pen, it's a nice trick, but there are probably a hundred, or perhaps even a few hundred, people reading this post who do it every Sunday. Someone who does the Saturday puzzle, now that is impressive. As for the pen, it makes it easier to read - doesn't everybody use one on the puzzle? Of course, on the hard puzzles it gets a bit messy in the end as guessing is all part of the fun.
posted by caddis at 11:01 PM on December 7, 2008


No love for the inker?
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:48 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]


The New York Times Crossword In Gothic links stuff like this dust storm to illustrate the answers.
posted by tellurian at 12:32 AM on December 8, 2008


Before her eyesight started giving out, my mum could do an early week (Monday or Tuesday) puzzle in eight minutes flat. I could detect no hesitation between filling in one word and the next. She would spend a day or two on the Saturday puzzle (*shakes fist at Will Shortz*), but very few escaped her in the end.

Her talents were wasted raising me, clearly.
posted by skippyhacker at 2:29 AM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, JackMo, you're getting two completely different kinds of puzzle mixed up, or even jumbled.

American crosswords have as much to do with British crosswords (called cryptic crosswords here) as American football has to do with British football (called soccer here, of course.)

They're two different puzzles (sports) on a similar grid (field) that just happen to be called the same things.

Of course, unlike the word "football", where the USA is the global outlier, most of the world seems to use the American-style when they use the word "crossword".

Of course, we could solve both the football and crossword confusion by calling both of the American versions "gridiron" instead.

Who's with me?
posted by rokusan at 3:45 AM on December 8, 2008


I can't see if the actual database is downloadable, but if so, couldn't one run this through one of those crossword-making programs to (slowly) build faux-NYT puzzles?

SimShortz?
posted by rokusan at 3:46 AM on December 8, 2008


Player getting six, duck, then fifty batting is test opener.

Violinist

I understand how you got from there to here, but the connection between the answer and clue seems so tenuous, and that's what puts me off British/cryptic crosswords. Player just doesn't seem to really connect that well. Maybe if the clue had something about "fiddle" or "takes a bow," etc.
posted by explosion at 4:47 AM on December 8, 2008


rokusan: There isn't the cultural gulf that you imagine - the NYT style crossword would be labelled "quick" or "standard" in the UK. Quicks often appear on the same page as the cryptic. JackMo simply they're a callow, feeble beast compared to his preferred crossword.

According to wikipedia, the NYT Sunday puzzle is cryptic two out of every eighteen weeks. Is this still the case?
posted by zamboni at 5:54 AM on December 8, 2008


jack_mo: it's worth noting before you deride too much that the NYT crossword increases in difficulty during the week from the often trivial Monday puzzle to the usually quite difficult Saturday one. (I am guessing you pulled your "random" Dr Dre clue from early in the week. The Sunday NYT puzzle is larger in size than the 15-by-15 standard but not necessarily more challenging clue-for-clue unless it has cryptic clues or some other clever clue trickery going on.) And no offense but if a cryptic NYT crossword relied on _American_ sports terms to solve it would probably be pretty impossible to most crossword fans in the UK as well.

Seems to me the British puzzle clue conventions are simply a different kettle of fish from the NYT ones, which sometimes have cryptic elements but more often rely on knowledge of trivia or obscure alternate usage/connotation of a clue term. Once you have the particular conventions in mind I don't think one type is intrinsically any more challenging than the other, though either can be maddening in the hands of a skilled puzzle author.
posted by aught at 6:41 AM on December 8, 2008


I can't see if the actual database is downloadable, but if so, couldn't one run this through one of those crossword-making programs to (slowly) build faux-NYT puzzles?

It'd be possible to screen-scrape the puzzle pages and re-create them in playable form. But $40 gets subscribers access to "over 5000" puzzles in their archive; $18'll get you 1001 puzzles in print. Legitimate acquisition is easier.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 7:59 AM on December 8, 2008


Great post, thanks!

jack_mo: That was a lot of trouble to go to to say "Hi, I'm British and I think you Yanks are dumb." You probably also go into threads discussing American football to point out that "football" actually means what we call "soccer," but I'm too lazy to go find out. Anyway, enjoy your annoying "clever" puzzles.
posted by languagehat at 8:11 AM on December 8, 2008


I see now that I misunderstood rokusan's question. Yes, it'd be possible to screen-scrape all the puzzles, create a complete concordance of words used in the Shortz era, and use that as the word list for crossword-making software. (But I'd estimate the likelihood of Shortz considering the result publishable to be somewhere in the same neighborhood of running a Markov filter on the Year's Best American Short Stories and selling the output to the New Yorker.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:00 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have a great-aunt who can solve the Sunday times puzzle in pen. In ONE Sunday afternoon.

Have you looked at these puzzles recently? Anyone can do them now.

And the mon. - thu. puzzles are horrible now. Ever since that Will Shortz film came out a couple of years ago, the Sunday through Thursday puzzles have been dumbed-down.
posted by Zambrano at 12:53 PM on December 8, 2008


Ever since that Will Shortz film came out a couple of years ago, the Sunday through Thursday puzzles have been dumbed-down.

I like to think I just got better at doing them.
posted by caddis at 1:28 PM on December 8, 2008


jack_mo: That was a lot of trouble to go to to say "Hi, I'm British and I think you Yanks are dumb."

It was more shock that the fancy-pants broadsheet New York Times runs puzzles like this - not knowing that crosswords are a completely different kettle of fish in the US, it was like turning to page three of the Financial Times to find an airbrushed young lady with her top off.

You probably also go into threads discussing American football to point out that "football" actually means what we call "soccer," but I'm too lazy to go find out.

Nah, in the Great Twat Wars of MetaTalk, I was firmly in the 'it's an American site, so the British members should stop saying twat' camp. And since I like cricket and follow a football team that languishes permanently in the lower divisions, I'm in no position to act snooty about any foreign sports with incomprehensible rules that are boring to watch!

Anyway, going by your weblog and language-based contributions here, I bet you anything you'd love doing the 'annoying "clever"' type of crossword if you tried them, languagehat.

...the connection between the answer and clue seems so tenuous, and that's what puts me off British/cryptic crosswords. Player just doesn't seem to really connect that well. Maybe if the clue had something about "fiddle" or "takes a bow," etc."

Yeah, hardcore crossword nerds would dismiss the 'violinist' clue as second rate for those reasons, but I've always liked the more obtuse, groan-inducing clues.

Once you have the particular conventions in mind I don't think one type is intrinsically any more challenging than the other

You're probably right, but untangling a cryptic clue just seems more satisfying - with the NYT clues you either know the answer or you don't (because they're trivia questions, synonyms, &c.) but faced with a cryptic clue, you can hack away until you solve it (eg. you could get the 'violinist' one with no knowledge of cricket if you tried the Roman numerals bit).
posted by jack_mo at 1:33 PM on December 8, 2008


with the NYT clues you either know the answer or you don't (because they're trivia questions, synonyms, &c.)

I think if you work your way later into the week you will find that many of the clues are annoyingly/pleasingly clever. See last Saturday's puzzle here.
posted by caddis at 1:53 PM on December 8, 2008


not knowing that crosswords are a completely different kettle of fish in the US

Ah, sorry, I just assumed you had already known that. See, typical Yank, I think all the world knows all our American stuff!

About the "clever" ones, my wife likes them and I sometimes help her do them, and I can see the appeal, but I dunno—I can puzzle my way through a clue or two, but the thought of doing a whole crossword of 'em makes me tired. Just because I'm not used to it, obviously, but there we are. Anyway, thanks for not taking my belligerence to heart!
posted by languagehat at 2:30 PM on December 8, 2008


I have a great-aunt who can solve the Sunday times puzzle in pen. In ONE Sunday afternoon.

Have you looked at these puzzles recently? Anyone can do them now.


Anyone but me, apparently.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:57 PM on December 8, 2008


Anyway, going by your weblog and language-based contributions here, I bet you anything you'd love doing the 'annoying "clever"' type of crossword if you tried them, languagehat.

The NY Times publishes cryptics, which is what Brit-syle crosswords are called in America. (They were first popularized in the US by Stephen Sondheim, and if you have a spare $343.48, you can buy a collection of Sondheim's puzzles here.)

The Times doesn't publish cryptics ever day, but they do publish them regularly.
posted by grumblebee at 6:27 PM on December 8, 2008


Sondheim's first cryptic (pdf download)
posted by grumblebee at 6:35 PM on December 8, 2008


Thanks grumblebee, that should occupy me on the train to Edinburgh tomorrow (and the train back, and the rest of this week, or however long it takes me to throw it across the room). Sondheim's puzzle is the even more devilish than usual advanced cryptic - some of the answers don't even have clues.
posted by jack_mo at 2:37 PM on December 9, 2008


I can't see if the actual database is downloadable, but if so, couldn't one run this through one of those crossword-making programs to (slowly) build faux-NYT puzzles?

But $40 gets subscribers access to "over 5000" puzzles in their archive; $18'll get you 1001 puzzles in print. Legitimate acquisition is easier.

You mistake my jerry-rigging curiousity for cheapskatery. Your method gets me the ACTUAL crosswords. I was wondering if one could use the database and a generator (if generators are good/iterative enough) to make entirely new crosswords that would still feel NYT-ish.

It's a generative linguistics notion, a sort of a cruciform turing test.
posted by rokusan at 2:11 AM on December 10, 2008


You mistake my jerry-rigging curiousity for cheapskatery.

I got it eventually...

jack_mo, try a Sunday puzzle (which is at about the same difficulty as Thursday; Friday and Saturday are harder, but smaller). The density customary in American crosswords ends up requiring a lot of common short words -- after just a dozen or so crosswords in my recent career as a solver, I started finding some of the cliched words tedious.

But in the harder puzzles, it's far from just trivia and synonyms, with a lot of clues involving wordplay you might enjoy. (For instance, Shortz once said his favorite clue ever was "it turns into a different story" for "spiralstaircase".)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:38 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


"it turns into a different story" for "spiralstaircase"
How very American, it should of course be 'storey'.
posted by tellurian at 5:19 PM on December 10, 2008


I like Shortz, but I still miss Eugene Maleska's puzzles.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:09 AM on December 11, 2008


You mistake my jerry-rigging curiousity for cheapskatery.
I got it eventually...


Sorry, scanned right past it! :)
posted by rokusan at 10:57 AM on December 11, 2008


jerry-rigging

Sorry to be pedantic, but it's jury rigging — a temporary repair, or jerry built — a slipshod construction. Jerry-rigging is ambiguous, and also bugs the hell out of my Dad, who's first name you can probably guess.

Authored crosswords have a different feel than generated ones, although I guess if the entire clue bank comes from the same author you'd get a more uniform mental feel from the generated crossword. I'm more in sync with some authors than others, and as I get a feel for the way they think, clues that I skipped early in the puzzle sometimes become obvious, even without some squares of the answer completed.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:05 AM on December 12, 2008


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