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Crossword puzzles, and their intended audience, are evolving

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New York Times crosswords have long catered to a white, male, Eurocentric audience

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If you’re an avid crossword puzzler, then you may know that crossword puzzling is in a moment of change, as constructors attempt to make their clues more relevant and inclusive. On Monday, The New York Times announced its inaugural Diverse Crossword Constructor Fellowship, which aims “to provide mentorship and support for constructors from underrepresented groups, including women, people of color and the L.G.B.T.Q. community,” according to the announcement, and is for constructors who have not had a crossword published in the Times. Applications open on Feb. 7.

Crossword construction is hard — constructors must come up with a set of innovative clues for words that lattice together — and it’s even more difficult if the constructor is hewing to a fun theme. It also requires a constructor to be a gauge of pop culture and language usage, as clues must be legible to a broad audience. This has only become more challenging as the internet has sped up the evolution of language, bringing phrases into common parlance through memes at the speed of social media — and as so much of what becomes popular slang is simply an appropriation of Black culture and queer culture.

By the same token, word connotations change dramatically over time, with some words becoming obsolete, and constructors must respond to all of this. The New York Times crossword is considered a kind of gold standard; the paper has run crossword puzzles since 1942, first published in the Sunday edition. In the past few years it has fallen into the crosshairs, coming under fire for running insensitive words — including a few evident ethnic slurs — with clues that invoked those words’ alternate meanings. This is part of a broader pattern of outdated or offensive clues, which paint a specific picture of who the intended puzzle-solver ought to be.

Everdeen Mason, editorial director for games at The New York Times, commented on the initiative via an email to Polygon.

Diversifying the pool of constructors is important because it will diversify the actual content of the puzzles. Not to overly intellectualize, but the way we validate language is always from a very particular point of view. It’s white and male, and in the case of our puzzles, pretty Eurocentric since it’s in English. While it’s not the intention, crosswords (and news publications in general) validate what kinds of words we consider proper and worthy, even though language evolves so quickly. I’ve been at The New York Times for a year, and there’s so much crossword fill and references that don’t reflect anything that’s in my reality, and I imagine it’s the same for a lot of solvers. I think that’s ok, because learning new things is fun, but shouldn’t that be the same for everyone? Everyone has the capacity to adapt. For a long time, our crosswords have consisted of the same ecosystem of words and cultural reference points from that particular point of view, and it’s hard to challenge that because people don’t want to stray too far from what they know will get them published. So my hope is that by diversifying the pool of constructors we naturally get a wider variety of puzzle fill and clues and grids. And by doing that, we model the kind of work we want to see.

The Diverse Crossword Constructor Fellowship will last three months, and will pair an up-and-coming crossword constructor with one of five puzzle-making mentors: Will Shortz, Joel Fagliano, Sam Ezersky, Wyna Liu, or Tracy Bennett. At the end of the fellowship, the puzzle will be submitted to the general admissions portal and considered for publication. “I can’t waste an opportunity to open the door wider for more people like me to enter the puzzle community,” Mason said.

There are other options if you’re a constructor interested in more community support, or a crossword puzzler looking for more options. There’s The Inkubator, which supports “cis women, trans women, & woman-aligned constructors,” and Queer Qrosswords, which has a pack of two puzzles that center LGBTQ+ people and benefit LGBTQ+ charities.