Feel free to send me anything I missed!
Palliative Clues. In January, beloved cryptic constructor John Galbraith Graham, AKA Araucaria, left a note over a crossword that he had “18 down of the 19, which is being treated with 13 15.” 18-Down was “Sign of growth” (CANCER), 19-Across “Food transporter heard to gradually reduce an endless effusion” (OESOPHAGUS, with the British spelling), and 13 and 15-Across were “Friendly (say) vicar at ease (say) with arrangement for coping with 18 down” (PALLIATIVE CARE).
It was a shocking, yet appropriately serene, move from the British reverend, 91, who had spent fifty years reinventing the cryptic clue. “I asked them last week how long I’d got,” he said in January, “but nobody knows how long you’ve got! They said it won’t be years and years, but it could be a large number of months.” He passed away in November. His last puzzle included “Warning not to outstay welcome I encountered in African country”—I MET in TOGO, or TIME TO GO.
The year also saw the loss of one of the States’ few master cryptic constructors, Frank W. Lewis, who had built puzzles for The Nation and to sharpen the wits of his fellow employees at the NSA. He was 98.
Shylock The Clue. Tribune Media Services triggered a cultural rift when it clued JEW as “Shylock, e.g.” The greedy, murderous, Shakespearean villain is referred to as “the Jew,” and his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech is sometimes quoted as an attack on anti-Semitism, but his name also invokes racist stereotypes. The syndicate apologized. It’s highly unlikely that the puzzle author and editor both intended such a reading. Russian mayoral candidate Nikolai Levichev, meanwhile, published puzzles with slurs against Jews and blacks that seem more intentional.
Is It Brain Surgery?: “Forget crosswords, have sex instead! Science says you should!” shouted a number of secondary outlets in response to a Rutgers study, often taking the opportunity to feature some “O faces” in the name of research illustration. The study, not without merit, was one of several recommending unconventional methods (such as learning a new skill) to prevent Alzheimer’s, always a source of anxiety for America’s aging population. It seems most likely that a combination of stimulating activities is better for the brain than any one cure-all, as I wrote irritably back then. But crosswording and neurology can still inform each other. Studies of how cryptic solvers’ brains work have yielded interesting insights into “fluid thinking.”
The Rescue of XWord Info. It was a good year for crossword scholarship, all told, thanks to several histories coinciding with the crossword’s 100th anniversary. But we nearly lost one of the greats: XWord Info. XWI has been chronicling all the puzzles in Will Shortz’s New York Times career, and thanks to coordination with David Steinberg’s Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, it’s well on its way to covering the paper’s entire 71-year puzzle feature history. However, issues with the critical community drove site creator Jim Horne to step down from day-to-day management and very nearly close up shop before handing the reins over to Jeff Chen. Chen has added personal commentary by himself, Shortz, and the constructors, making XWord Info an even better resource than before.
Where Are The Women? Ben Tausig had an extraordinary year, publishing one of the best-ever crossword histories, editing a collection of work by young constructors, and continuing to edit The American Values Crossword, pioneering an improved compensation model for crossword-makers. His greatest single contribution to the scene, though, may have been this essay (reflecting a chapter in his history book), in which he asks a question that really should have come up before: why has the number of women creating and editing crosswords dropped so precipitously? And what can be done about it?
The Times, the Post, the Situation. After a drop in profits early in the year, the New York Times firmly rebounded, with its stock climbing from an $8.07 low in February to a $16.14 high at the end of the year. On the other hand, The Washington Post essentially became Jeff Bezos’ toy. Some newspaper industry analysts talk hopefully of “signs of stabilization” thanks to new, ever-more-digital models, but for the most part, it’s the same old story of continued consolidation, falling circulation, and all of us actively wondering how long secondary print features like the Post Puzzler and CrosSynergy can go without feeling the bite. The New York Times has made its crossword a profitable division even on a bad year, but to do so requires a certain infrastructure that’s difficult to sustain when layoffs become as regular as holidays.
Scrabble’s De-Crowdsourcing. For all the crosswordy projects crowdsourcing grew to fund in 2013, there was one big one taken out of the public’s hands: Hasbro stopped its 25-year policy of funding the National Scrabble Association, announcing that it would take over the functions of this other NSA. Stefan Fastis, author of Word Freak, had the best grasp of the story’s implications: “The death of Scrabble’s organizing body—which closed on July 1 following years of declining financial support from Hasbro, the game’s owner—reflects a broader conflict between corporate and intellectual forces in American cultural life. Guess which one is winning.” Scrabble is, of course, only tangentially related to the crosswords most of us know as “crosswords,” but it’s not hard to see echoes of this conflict in other venues.
Kickstart The Art. The number of successful Kickstarter-funded projects this year exceeded that of all previous years combined, and otherwise crowdfunded projects are picking up too, with obvious implications for the art form. A certain flavor of quirky, ambitious project—call it “Kickstartable”—may see more use in the coming years. In light of what’s happening to the National Scrabble Association and print markets, this frontier becomes even more important for the art form.
Technical Abstraction. Two of the most notable crosswords of the year were the Adobe Password Crossword and the Regular Expression Crossword. The former alarmed us by showing how easy passwords could be to guess: the latter delighted those who’d learned the advanced logic of character-string searches. Both of them made us consider the ongoing relationship between language and technology. And the market for crossword apps and crossword-like apps continued to mature as the markets for tablets and phablets did.
100 Years, 100 Million Solvers. The crossword turned 100 this year, and just about everybody had some idea how to celebrate. Many special puzzles were composed for the occasion, but none with a bigger audience than Merl Reagle’s Google Doodle. Google has roughly 1 billion monthly visitors and ran the puzzle during the high-traffic weekend before Christmas, putting Reagle’s work before more eyeballs than ever before. Even the Simpsons episode highlighting his work pales in comparison. In fact, the only puzzle that may have been solved more is the Arthur Wynne work that started it all.