Fred Ohles: Theory of Word Puzzles

Expanded description: The course has a theme for each week: 1. Boundaries; 2. Precision; 3. Ethics; 4. Creativity; 5. Aesthetics and Enjoyment; 6. Linguistics; 7. Community; 8. Humor.

In a typical week there are short readings on the theme that total one or two dozen pages. The readings have been selected from respectable journalism, books about word puzzles, and the blogosphere that has arisen about word puzzles as about seemingly everything else in life. Participants can choose to receive the readings either printed or as emailed pdfs.

Several times there is also a case study. Not to be confused with its business school namesake, here the case study uses the same kinds of readings as the ones that frame class discussions generally. It means a deep dive into an experience that helps to illuminate the weekly theme. The first part of each week’s session will be spent in a discussion of the theme. The second part will be devoted to discussion of a variety of puzzles and clues to puzzles.

Week 1: Introduction: What we will seek to learn and know about word puzzles.

Boundaries: Why word puzzles have rules and why we would or would not follow them.

Readings: Patrick Berry, Crossword Constructor’s Handbook, 26-28, 45, 60, 62-64 (8 pp.); “Sometimes You Can’t Trust the ‘Rules’ of Crosswords,” Puzzle Nation blogsite, January 19,2021 (6 pp.) cant-trust-the-rules-of-crosswords/; Laura Braunstein (“LauraB”), “Indie Spotlight: Will Nediger, Bewilderingly Puzzles,” Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite December 4, 2017 (2 pp.)

Case Study: The puzzle with too many words but impressive letters. Jim Horne, “This is the first ever QUINTUPLE pangram in the NYT,” Xword Info: New York Times Crossword Answers and Insight website, August 10, 2016 (1 p.) 8/10/2016

Week 2: Precision: Where the exceptional discipline in word puzzle themes and clues arises. Readings: Patrick Berry, Crossword Constructor’s Handbook, 7, 19, 62-65 (8 pp.); Coral Amende, “The Wrong Stuff,” The Crossword Obsession, 62-65 (4 pp.)

Week 3: Ethics: Whether some topics and contents are unsuitable for word puzzles. What the responsibilities are of puzzle constructors and editors.

Reading: Fred Ohles, “Watch Your Language,” chapter of a book manuscript, from last paragraph of p. 17 to end of p. 30 (14 pp.)

Case Study: The editor was a plagiarist. Danny Lewis, “Plagiarism Scandal Checkers the World of Crossword Puzzles,” Smithsonian, March 8, 2016 (3 pp.) smart-news/plagiarism-scandal-checkers-world-of-crossword-puzzles-180958303/; Jessie Guy-Ryan, “Plagiarism Scandal Leaves the Crossword Community Puzzled,” Atlas Obscura, March 5, 2016 (3 pp.) plagiarism-scandal-leaves-the-crossword-community-puzzled/

Case Study: The man of many names. “Marie Kelly”’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “Play It Cool”; “Raul Ellaray”’s review, Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite, December 16, 2018 (2 pp.) “A Note on Crosswords and Bylines,” Wall Street Journal, January 2019 (1 p.)https://www. PUZZLEB-4462; “A Puzzly Nom de Plume?” Puzzle Nation blogsite, January 22, 2019 (1 p.)

Week 4: Creativity: How variety and originality find expression in word puzzles.

Readings: A. J. Jacobs, “How Word Puzzles Tickle the Brain and Satisfy the Soul,” Literary Hub website, April 27, 2022 (12 pp.); Bobby Matherne, book review of Cruciverbalism: Crossword Fanatics Guide to Life in the Grid by Stanley Newman, A Reader’s Journal website, March 6, 2012 (6 pp.); Dean Takahashi, “Stanley Newman interview: Achat with the chief Brain Games mastermind,” VentureBeat website, March 4, 2022 (8 pp.) /stanley-newman-interview-a-chat-with-the-chief-brain-games-mastermind/

Case Study: Election Day Puzzle, 1996, New York Times (1 p.)

Week 5: Aesthetics: When word puzzles might be considered beautiful or ugly.

Readings: “Time’s Up” by Manny Nosowsky and “T Party” by S. E. Booker, reprinted in Coral Amende, The Crossword Obsession, pp. 266-269 (4 pp.); 12 puzzle grids from New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Lincoln Journal Star (6 pp.).

Enjoyment: What word puzzle features enhance or detract from the pleasure of the solver?

Readings: Fred Ohles’s Wall Street Journal crossword—Nate’s write-up, Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite, May 19, 2020 (1 pp.); Fred Ohles’s Universal crossword “Forge Your Own Path,” Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite, May 19, 2020 (1 p.),; Bloggers Madame Defarge and Husker Gary comment on a Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle, L. A. Times Crossword Corner, February 3, 2021 (1 p.) 2021/02/wednesday-february-3-2021-fred-ohles.html; Fred Ohles’s Wall Street Journal crossword, “Sentinels”—Jim P’s review, Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite, September 15, 2021 (1 p.)

Week 6: Linguistics 1: What range of words and expressions are found in word puzzles and why?

Reading: Fred Ohles, “Watch Your Language,” chapter of a book manuscript, pp. 1-17.

Linguistics 2: How word puzzles in other languages and other countries differ from American word puzzles.

Reading: Examples of crossword puzzles in Czech, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, and Turkish (10 pp.).

Week 7: Community: Who word puzzle creators and solvers are, how they form communities and what they expect of each other.

Readings: “Meet Team Fiend,” Diary of a Crossword Fiend blogsite, retrieved August 1, 2022 (5 pp.) %20meet-team-fiend/; Burkhard Bilger, “Meet the Marquis de Sade of the Puzzle World,” The New Yorker, March 4, 2002 (17 pp.),; Rachel Fabi, “What It’s Like to Compete at a Crossword Puzzle Tournament,” New York Times, April 11, 2022 (3 pp.)

Week 8: Humor: Which things merit a laugh in word puzzles?

Readings: Eric Konigsberg, “Crossword Scandal? The Times’ Mid-Ass Touch,” The New Yorker, February 10, 2012 (4 pp.); 72 clues that may be funny, culled from crossword puzzles (4 pp.)

Conclusion: What we have learned and what we still want to learn.