Hey, everybody. T Campbell here, picking up where we left off last week. “Callin’ Them Squares” is a Saturday series that tries to define the many different types of crosswords, and make some observations to help constructors along the way.
The first of our six classes of crosswords is the themeless. Let’s do a simple description first, to help the crossword newbie who may have found this entry by googling.
Themelesses are defined by what they lack. Unlike most classes, there is no obvious connection between key answer words (known as “grid entries” or just “entries” in the biz).
Newspaper crosswords encourage a themeless to have a lower, and often more exotic, word-count than themed puzzles. The results are usually more challenging, and papers increase their puzzles’ difficulty as the week progresses, so you can usually see them on Friday or Saturday. The larger 21x21s that appear in most newspapers on Sunday are rarely themeless, though.
Outside the newspaper field, many constructors love to work with themelesses for the challenge and freedom they offer. Peter Gordon’s Fireball Crosswords are dominated by this genre, and Brendan Emmett Quigley uses it often. CrosSynergy bucks the typical newspaper practice by offering a small themeless each Sunday.
In some amateur venues, themeless puzzles are the norm, though they don’t feature the show-offy grids and/or advanced vocabulary of their newspaper cousins or online works aimed at the experienced solver.
I can hear constructor Matt Gaffney grinding his teeth already. From Matt’s own blog:
I’ve always disliked the phrase “themeless crossword,” since it’s negative, stressing what’s not there (a theme) over what is there (generally livelier vocabulary than themed puzzles).
Aided by reader suggestions, Matt instead nominated the phrase “freestyle crossword,” and his colleague Matt Jones endorsed it. (No word from Matt Ginsberg, though. Where’s your Matt-solidarity, Matt?)
I find myself a bit torn here. It is true that a themeless, done properly, has virtues that “compensate” for the absence of a theme, greater freedom for the constructor foremost among them.
But ultimately, I can’t endorse “freestyle” here, now, yet, for reasons of utility. The term “themeless” is slightly more descriptive, because there are other ways for a puzzle to break out of usual stylistic restrictions, as we’ll see later. And it has a big head start: a lot more people know and understand “themeless” than “freestyle,” whereas the other classes we’re exploring have no widely accepted names at this writing. I could probably overlook the first consideration, but not the second.
You’ll have to work harder to get the rest of us to swim your way, Matts. Start publishing anthologies of “Freestyle Crosswords.” Make the bumper sticker that says “I Do It Freestyle Friday and Saturday Nights.” Get celebrity endorsements: Wil Wheaton will do anything if you convince him that the nerds who hated him in Star Trek will think it’s cool. Give it a few years. We’ll talk.
Next week: themeless categories. (Or: categories? Of themelesses?)