Callin’ Them Squares!: A Crossword Taxonomy, Part 1

Note from Amy: T Campbell, the guy who constructed the Ubercross “Fiddy” 50×50 crossword, has been doing a lot of thinking about crossword themes, coming up with labels and definitions for all sorts of themes. T is breaking up his treatise into digestible pieces and will post them at Diary of a Crossword Fiend on Saturdays. Please join in and we’ll work towards a clearer understanding of theme varieties. Take it away, T!

How many kinds of crosswords are there?

It’s a simple-seeming question, but the answer gets harder the more you think it over. Amy Reynaldo and other crossword bloggers keep mentioning “this or that kind of theme” and explaining as needed how they define the “kind” in question.

But how broad or narrow is the “kind?” What if the “kind” of theme is so narrow as to only appear twice in ten years? What if it’s so broad that it appears somewhere every few days?

What are the most useful ways to define a “kind,” and what can we say about each “kind” that can lead to better crosswords?

Because I think clear language does help us toward that goal. We constructors have evolved slang like “fill” and “unchecked” to help us do our jobs, but many species of crossword have never had official names before, and they have never been mapped in relation to one another. So let’s put on our taxonomist hats and give that a whirl!

(This’ll be an interactive exercise, so while I’ll post my own ideas first, I may revise as I go based on your responses. It’s not a democracy, though… you’ll have to talk me into it.)

xword1Some overlap between “kinds” is inevitable. This ain’t biology, where you can define each species by who has sex with who. (Crosswords, as far as I am aware, do not have sex with each other, not even when I close the puzzle book and leave it in the dark for hours.) Still, I do think it’s useful to borrow biology’s “division tree” structure. In my view, there are classes, categories and subcategories of crosswords, and like in biology, the classes divide into categories, and the categories (sometimes) into subcategories.

I define six broad classes of crossword: the themeless, the fact-finder, the wordplayer, the run-on, the trickster and the mutant. What do all these names mean? I’ll start telling you next week. In the meantime, post your best guesses in the comments!

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10 Responses to Callin’ Them Squares!: A Crossword Taxonomy, Part 1

  1. KarmaSartre says:

    the-me-less — those puzzles that refuse to recognize my self-referential nature, and fail to mention me by name.

    fact-finder — those puzzles that have a built-in Google feature enabling the solver instant access to all knowledge data bases in the belief that the whole world is just an extension of the mind.

    wordplayer — those puzzles with more than 2 answers where “er” is appended to the end of a common word to make a kinda-word, two letters longer, thereby completing a grid with “ugly fill” and aggravating crossword critics everywhere. See “wordplayer”.

    run-on — those puzzles in which two or more independent answers are cross-referenced for no logical reason. See 87 down.

    trickster — An April Fools puzzle, published at an inappropriate time, such as mid-January.

    mutant — those puzzles which actually morph, during the solve, into some ugly parody of themselves, devouring one’s answers and spitting them back off the page.

  2. pannonica says:

    Just one point on the analogy: It isn’t so cut-and-dried in biology either. For starters, there are transitional species and hybrids (both viable and non-viable). Genetic criteria do not always conclusively outweigh other data. Even in systematics, biology is messy and squishy.

  3. pauer says:

    Fun! I look forward to the posts & discussion.

  4. john farmer says:

    Crosswords, as far as I am aware, do not have sex with each other, not even when I close the puzzle book and leave it in the dark for hours.

    Buy how can you be sure?

  5. Ladel says:

    Oh spare us the deconstruction, sometimes a good solve is just a good solve. Like a lot of things in life, the just for fun stuff, when it’s cookin’ it’s cookin’, and you need not go into the kitchen to see how it’s made.

    I’m off, at long last to see Social Network, talk about something to talk about.


  6. Pat Merrell says:

    Cool. Sounds interesting. (Karma, you’re too funny.)

  7. Meem says:

    Shout out to Karma! Spluttered my coffee! Will watch and see. Need to be convinced this exercise merits discussion.

  8. Karen says:

    Wait a minute, what happened to the freestyle crossword? (In memory if previous attempts to reform the crossword argot.)

  9. T Campbell says:

    Funny you should ask, Karen. Wait ’til next week.

    And yeah, KarmaSartre deserves a gold star.

  10. Matt Gaffney says:

    “Crosswords, as far as I am aware, do not have sex with each other, not even when I close the puzzle book and leave it in the dark for hours”


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