The Hunt for New Crossword-Friendly Vocabulary!
Epee. Etui. Acai. Amie. Anoa. Oleo. Iota.
We’ve seen a lot of curious words in crosswords over the years. Some of them are blips on the radar, appearing for a bit then vanishing without a trace. Others become part of the fabric of crosswords, forever synonymous with those enigmatic black-and-white grids under the banner of “crosswordese.”
It does make me wonder, though. What words haven’t we seen yet? What curious combinations of vowels and consonants await solvers in the future? Will they be blips or will they be the stuff of legends?
So I decided to try out different words that were either heavy on vowels or had strange letter patterns to see which ones had appeared in The New York Times crossword and when, according to the database on XWordInfo. And I turned up some curious results.
COOEE hasn’t appeared since April 1996. FLYBY hasn’t been in since 2007. QWERTY has only appeared twice, and not in almost a decade.
And yet, equally strange words like VORPAL and CRWTH haven’t appeared at all.
It’s hard to predict what odd vocabulary will strike a chord with constructors.
I mean, sure, there’s a whiff of disdain surrounding crosswordese, but surely as former obscurities become more familiar, crosswordese must evolve and move forward as well. What will be the new crosswordese?
It’s not like we’re going to have new rivers, mountains, bays, or other geographical areas, for the most part. (True, the Aral Sea is pretty much the Aralkum Desert now, but that hasn’t stopped constructors from continuing to reference it.)
But I’m getting off-topic. Where would we find this new potential grid fill?
There are some delightful nuggets of linguistic oddness lurking in old dictionaries that have promise as part of a new generation of crosswordese. I mean, ECHO and OCHO are all well and good, but what about OCHE?
That’s the line behind which a darts player must stand, by the way. Zero hits in XWordInfo.
You need peculiar letter combinations to help fill your grid? How about BADAUD, UGHTEN, YERK, CAGG, and BORT? I could easily see these weird words getting constructors out of some jams when it comes to grid construction.
Sure, we’d have to educate solvers on these words, but if we can make ETUI a well-known form of crosswordese, why not these?
(Yes, I know, you want definitions. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. A badaud is a dimwitted gossip-spreader who believes just about anything. Ughten is morning twilight, the light that appears in the sky before the sun rises. To yerk is to beat someone vigorously and with rapid efficiency. A bort is a poor-quality diamond or a fragment of such a diamond (as well as a license plate that commonly runs out at Itchy and Scratchy Land). A cagg is a solemn vow not to drink for a certain amount of time.)
None of those words have appeared in the Times according to XWordInfo. Except BORT, but even that hasn’t appeared since 1993. Which is amazing, because the BORT joke on The Simpsons I referenced above happened in October of 1994. Come on, constructors, don’t leave us hanging. BORT did not have to lapse into irrelevance.
Speaking of words that have fallen by the wayside, I decided to try lost positives next.
Lost positives are words that were previously commonplace, but have been lost to time, while words with negative connotations based on them have survived. You know inept, inert, disheveled, uncouth, unkempt, and inane, but how often do you see ept, ert, sheveled, couth, kempt, pecunious, or ane?
Thus, lost positives.
So what happened when I checked them against the XWordInfo database?
EPT has appeared in the Times — as slang or a joking reference — but ERT hasn’t (except as a Scottish word). Nor has SHEVELED. KEMPT isn’t exactly common, but it has appeared in the last five years. COUTH hasn’t since 2003.
ANE, meanwhile, has hundreds of appearances, but as a hydrocarbon suffix, a Wheel of Fortune reference (“an e”), or as part of Sue Ane Langdon’s name.
So there’s some potential here.
[Image courtesy of A Date With An Amateur.]
Hey, ERT gives me an idea. If we’re really going to discover some exciting, strange, and unexpected new grid fill, I think we have to look toward other languages.
All sorts of words that originate in other languages end up as part of the expansive English vocabulary. As James Nicoll once said, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
Why not continue on in that fine tradition and add to the potential puzzle word lexicon?
In the last few years, the concept of hygge has grown in popularity. Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. You can see how people would latch onto the concept for themselves.
So I was surprised to discover that hygge hadn’t appeared in the NYT. That’s a letter pattern begging for crossings.
Personally, I think we should start with words like hygge. A word that exists in another language to describe a concept that there simply isn’t a word for in English.
Saudade, while a bit long for casual grid use, is another word that has started making the transition into English vernacular. Saudade is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves.
There is a world of vocabulary out there waiting to be harnessed for crossword obscurity, and there’s even a website dedicated to it.
If you check out Eunoia, you’ll find hundreds of foreign words to encapsulate moods and ideas, feelings and expressions that can plug holes both in your vocabulary and your grids.
Here’s a small sampling of words I found on the site that might help cruciverbalists who have constructed themselves into a corner:
Resfeber is a Swedish word for “the feeling of excitement and nervousness experienced by a traveler before undertaking a journey.”
Ubuntu is a Zulu word for “a quality that includes the essential human virtues, a combination of compassion and humility.”
Mångata is a Swedish word for “the road-like reflection of moonlight on water.”
Wegbier is a German word for “a beer you’re having on your way somewhere (i.e. a party).”
Karelu is a Tulu word for “the mark left on the skin by wearing something tight.”
Rauxa is a Catalan word for “sudden determination or action.”
Umay is a Tagalog word for “getting tired of a certain food.”
To Fernweh is to have a yearning to see distant places (in German).
Either half of wabi-sabi, a Japanese word meaning “finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay” could prove handy in a grid.
So I put the question to you, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers. What words would you like to see appear in crosswords more? Where do you think we should look for fresh, new, peculiar crosswordese? Let us know in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!
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