Try this pair of crossword clues, which share their first letters: At 1-Across you have [Town at the eighth mile of the Boston Marathon] and ?ATICK filled in, while 1-Down is clued as [“Treasure Island” illustrator, 1911] with ?CWYETH filled in. What’s your guess for the letter in the square there? If you don’t know either the city of Boston or early 20th-century illustrators pretty well, you might be stuck guessing. Not fun!
After writing last week’s puzzles, I was slightly worried that something like this would happen, with solvers having to guess at one certain square. It was in the Thursday, July 2nd puzzle, where 14-A was clued as [Event discussed in many WSJ articles] and 5-D was [Tapering option for a diamond]. If you’d gotten every letter in those entries except where they cross, your grid would have given you I?O and STE?CUT there. The correct letter for that box was P, yielding IPO and STEPCUT.
Why was I concerned? Because if you’re not familiar with the alphabet soup of financial terms or the diamond industry, you might plausibly have put an M there. STEM CUT sounds like a thing, and the financial term I?O could be just about anything if you didn’t know it.
It’s considered good form among crossword writers to not have two sports clues cross, or two opera clues, or two ancient history clues. The polite thing about American-style crosswords is that every letter in the grid is “checked,” meaning it’s part of both an across entry and a down entry (in contradistinction to British-style crosswords, where a sizable percentage of the squares in a grid are part of only an across or a down entry). This means you get two bites at the apple on every square in the grid, so if you don’t know the French word on the across, you might still know the rapper on the down (if you don’t know French or rap, though, you might be out of luck).
A closely related rule is that two obscure words shouldn’t cross, and when they do, that unpleasant crossing has a name: We call it a “natick” (pronounced (NAID-ick). Why? Because the crossing in the first paragraph of this piece appeared in a 2008 New York Times crossword, and puzzle blogger Rex Parker was so irked by it that he christened the phenomenon of an unfair crossing with the name of the Massachusetts town at 1-Across. The term stuck, and is still widely used by crossword folk to this day. Incidentally, the 1-Down answer there is parsed as “N.C. Wyeth,” which of course crosses NATICK at the N.
I hope you didn’t get naticked on STEP CUT and IPO! My cruciverbal weapon of choice is clever cluing, not obscurity. Spot an unfair crossing in the Daily Beast puzzle? I hope not, but tweet it to #beastxword and I’ll know not to natick for next time.
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