Almost certainly biased: _EALOUS
Big no-no in many religions: POR_
Website traffic builder: CONTE_T
Doing the love dance: _ATING
Inspiring leader to many in the 21st century: O_AMA
Since you are reading this blog, the odds are good that you are sufficiently puzzle-minded to recognize that each of these words has at least two potential answers. It’s especially likely you figured it out if you got to OBAMA/OSAMA, the most famous “one letter different” pair in recent memory. Also, installment #17 of this series had the FINGER-PAINTING/FINGERPRINTING/FINGER-POINTING example. And the title of this installment is “The Variable Crossword.” Look, this wasn’t meant to be hard.
If you’ve seen Wordplay or traveled in crossword circles for very long, you’ve probably heard the tale of how a crossword dared to offer a PROGNOSTICATION about who’d be called MISTER PRESIDENT after 1996– in a manner of speaking. Will Shortz has called Jeremiah Farrell’s work “the most amazing crossword I’ve ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said ‘How dare you presume that Clinton will win!’ And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we’d made a whopper of a mistake!”
1996 was not a particularly close election year, and calling it for Clinton would have been a pretty safe gamble, had the Times prepared this puzzle in advance to run the day after the election. But the exclamation point in the center clue– “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!)”– tipped off a minority of solvers that a deeper game was being played here: that said clue had not one workable answer, but two: BOB DOLE / ELECTED/CLINTON / ELECTED. Each of the crossings had a clue that also worked both ways… more or less. To be honest, a couple of the clues were kind of a stretch.
Black Halloween animal: BAT/CAT
French 101 word: OUI/LUI
Provider of support, for short: BRA/IRA
Sewing shop purchase: YARD/YARN
Short writings: BIOS/BITS
Much-debated political inits.: ERA/NRA
BRA/IRA and BIOS/BITS don’t look quite right. Did anyone still think of BRA as “for short” for BRASSIERE, a word used far less commonly than BRA by 1996? Are Kitty Kelley and David McCullough’s BIOS “short” writings, or is that a labored way to imply the word is “short for” BIOGRAPHIES? But most crossword fans are prepared to give such things a little bit of a free pass, when someone accomplishes something entirely new with the form.
Which is a problem for this kind of puzzle, because now it’s been done, and that free pass is only good for one use. This species of puzzles remains exceedingly rare, and given Shortz’s fondness for the first of them, it seems likely that their scarcity has more to do with their difficulty than their popularity. Jim Horne, master of New York Times crossword puzzle data from the Will Shortz era, only tracks four, and the next is a 2003 Patrick Merrell, seven years later. (Searching through the Fiend database, I was able to find three others, all from indie sources.) Like its predecessor, it has a “prediction,” but this one hinges on the distinctly less earth-shaking question of whether Lance Armstrong would be a FOUR-TIME CHAMP or FIVE-TIME CHAMP at the end of the 2003 Tour de France. Whether he would eventually be a 7-TIME CHAMPION, or, later, an ACCUSED DOPER, is outside the scope of this grid.
The crossing clues for FOUR/FIVE are, at least, more ironclad than those of BOB DOLE/CLINTON: “Big lobby in D.C. (NEA/NRA),” “Related to: Suffix (ITIC/OTIC),” “Like some TV channels, briefly (VHF/UHF).” Only the first pair, NEA and NRA, are even part of a large set. The other two pairs represent clear, though unexciting, either-or choices.
Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 2010 “Forecast for Miami” falls somewhere in the middle of these two in terms of dramatic tension: it’s another sporting event, but at least a sporting event that has only two players. (Plus, well, more Americans care about football, even if, as Merrell claims, the Tour de France does have “the world’s largest live audience.”) Combining with the improv, the puzzle’s longest entry reads QB FROM NEW / ORLEANS WINS A / SUPER BOWL FOR / NFL’S COLTS/NFL SAINTS. Quigley also sneaks in the name PETER / ABIDE, the longest entry’s original author.
While “Devices that have speakers, for short (PCS/PAS)” is typically wry Quigley, and “Tennis term (NET/LET)” is decent, “They may be found in a shoot (PISTOLS/PISTILS)” seems a bit awkwardly worded. For that matter, so does this mysterious “QB FROM NEW ORLEANS” that our mysterious prognosticator hasn’t bothered to name, but maybe he’s just trying to preserve believability by not telling you that the Colts and Saints are switching quarterbacks at the last minute. It could happen.
Some more recent examples have just covered a general 50-50 choice, like Ethan Friedman’s 2006 BLACK/WHITE, clued as a “Shade of” EMPEROR PENGUINS and DAILY NEWSPAPERS. Friedman has the second longest string of variable cells in his grid, five to Farrell’s seven, and the crossings are fairly adroit, even if it makes for three fairly skimpy theme entries.
Had on one’s back: BORE/WORE
Not open: SLY/SHY
Home, for one: PLACE/PLATE
Construction site sights: CRANKS/CRANES
Patrick Blindauer’s 2010 work includes a HEADS/TAILS variable and does not skimp on the theme content, adding in BOTH SIDES / OF THE COIN and CHANCES ARE / FIFTY-FIFTY. Relative to BLACK/WHITE, though, its crossing entries strain juuuust a little bit to keep their clues clean and sharp.
Compelling word: MUSH/MUST
They’re held by caddies: TEES/TEAS
Prevents from making further progress, in a way: TRIPS/TRAPS
Some drinks: ALES/ADES
The most recent Times example, a 2011 David J. Kahn, doesn’t have a prediction or a fifty-fifty choice, but it makes wry use of the fact that ANDREW JOHNSON and ANDREW JACKSON are two presidents, and the only two presidents, who “served as a US SENATOR from TENNESSEE.”
Cotton ___: BALLS/BOLLS
Captain James of the high seas: COOK/HOOK
It’s rich in sugar: CAKE/CANE
(I’m trying to maintain some pretense of objectivity, here, but “Captain James of the high seas” just makes my heart melt with its beauty.)
Finally, this Matt Gaffney is a remarkable oddity within this genre. It’s built not around a single variable string, but around five variable cells scattered through the grid, each of which can be summed up in its defining entry, W OR T. Although it ended up with some of the most labored clues in this sampling, it’s an experiment worth repeating (using the same tools we established for substitution crosswords, earlier– which would be helpful in constructing all of these crossings, come to think of it):
Made a decision (to): VOTED/VOWED
Set aside: ALLOT FOR or ALLOW FOR (?)
They move big things around: TOTERS/TOWERS
Enveloped entirely: TRAPPED/WRAPPED
Dominate, in a way: TALK OVER/WALK OVER
From which point: THENCEFORTH/WHENCEFORTH
Like an old shirt’s fabric: TORN/WORN
Approximate location: THEREABOUTS/WHEREABOUTS (?)
Enclosed space at one end of the human life cycle: TOMB/WOMB (:-S)
Ground rule double, e.g.: STAT/SWAT
Sadly, Horne calls this kind of crossword the “schizo” crossword when a more accurate term would be “MPD.” Or we could just avoid the whole “comparing crosswords to specific mental disorders” thing altogether, and call them variable crosswords. Seems a little safer.
With variables, we’ve left the world of the run-on and entered the trickster category. Tricksters are crosswords that do something crosswords aren’t ordinarily supposed to do, causing greater potential frustration but also greater potential gratification in the solver.
Some tricksters are more apologetic than others. The JACKSON/JOHNSON grid begins its clue with “Either of the two presidents…” a turn of phrase that announces its variable nature right off the bat. Gaffney’s grid accompanies an announcement that one of its answers is the puzzle’s defining entry, but it doesn’t say which one (W OR T doubles as WORT). On his sports prediction, Quigley includes the coy note, “Do you doubt me? When have I ever led you astray, hmm? Exactly. So all you betting folk out there, you can trust me on this here prediction. You might ask yourself, how does he know? A magician never reveals his secrets.”
Shortz remembers the angry protests about the 1996 Farrell puzzle with a certain fondness, but, as ever, the name of the game is to be just solvable enough. Sometimes the magician needs to at least announce, “You’re going to see a trick.”
Can variable answers tell us anything about ourselves?
Remember the quiz at the beginning? Here come the answers. Be honest with yourself about how you did.
Almost certainly biased: JEALOUS/ZEALOUS
Big no-no in many religions: PORN/PORK
Website traffic builder: CONTENT/CONTEST
Doing the love dance: DATING/MATING
Inspiring leader to many in the 21st century: OBAMA/OSAMA
In my experience, the long habit of filling in one right answer sometimes blinds me to the possibility of another, equally correct answer, which is a problem for creative types. I think I would’ve had a hard time seeing PLAY after seeing PLOY, or PORN after PORK, or CONTEST after CONTENT. This might say that I see scheming as more devious and less admirable (PLAY is a more positive word than PLOY), which runs counter to how I see myself. On the other hand, my long experience with website CONTENT and scant experience with the more interactive CONTEST is no surprise, and my experience with Jewish dietary restrictions (and few friends who openly discuss pornography) makes PORK a natural fit.
In the other cases I’m likely to see both, but the choice of one word over another still might say something. FAIL is more modern parlance than FALL: the former is associated with “epic fail” and “too big to fail” while the latter is used more in classic literature. The negative clue for JEALOUS/ZEALOUS might test how you feel about religion, and DATING/MATING might determine your patience with courtship rituals. The OBAMA/OSAMA test seems more inconclusive: some frustrated neocons and disappointed Democrats would probably prefer not to admit that either one was an inspiring leader to many, but others would be more concerned about OSAMA’s influence than interested in remembering OBAMA’s fervent following. (And there’s another, more disturbing possibility, but we won’t dwell on that. Let’s just say that doing a crossword doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a decent person.)
You can go back through the other variable clues in this piece and view them in the same light. (Try it, it’s fun!)
To be a true personality test, though, fill-in-the-letter exercises would need two things: a scientific sample size… and uncrossed squares. The greater the percentage of people who answer an A-or-B question “A,” the less significance an “A” answer has, and the more a “B” answer has. And although creating a variable square that fits four different words, instead of the usual two, is an impressive feat by Farrell and all his followers, it’s hard to determine for sure whether the BOB DOLE ELECTED solvers got their answer from the crossings, or from wishful thinking. Science needs a simple binary choice. Most crosswords just have one variable too many.
Next week: The Vector Three. Not the title of a new Tom Clancy spy thriller, although it certainly should be.