Entertainment for All People
FRIDAY PUZZLE — It’s not every day that we get to watch word usage evolve right in front of our eyes, but today I’m going to show you how, over the course of about 70 years, a dog can change into a drinking game. You’ll love this; it’s like magic, but in grid form.
When I’m writing about crosswords, I find it helpful to look at the analysis for a given puzzle on XWord Info. The data compiled by Jeff Chen and Jim Horne are interesting to me as a constructor, but I think that some of it is also interesting for solvers. Their analysis is how I can tell you that a particular entry is appearing in The New York Times for the first time, or whether there is a low or high word count.
One of the more interesting datapoints, in my opinion, is the historical analysis of pre-Shortzian words (entries in puzzles published before 1993, when Will Shortz became crosswords editor), mostly because I am fascinated by how language evolves over time. This hit home for me today when I looked at Paolo Pasco’s crossword under the microscope. I enjoyed his Friday themeless very much and felt that, while a bit on the easy side, it had just enough resistance to make the solve a fun one.
What surprised me, however, was the lack of unique entries. That does not change my opinion on his puzzle, it’s merely an observation; Mr. Pasco is one of the younger New York Times constructors, so it’s not unreasonable to expect to see some newer words in his work. But I thought it was curious.
So I took a closer look, and it turns out that there were a couple of pre-Shortzian entries in his puzzle. One of them, BAR BETS, was fetchingly clued as “They may be settled over drinks.” I put in BAR TABS at first, but soon corrected myself.
You can click on the entries in the XWord Info analysis to see all of the instances in which the word or phrase has been used in the New York Times crossword. So I clicked on it, and learned that BARBETS had been used exactly once before, in 1948. And it was clued as a poodle.
It turns out that there is a breed of dog called the Barbet, a sporting breed that is essentially a French water dog that has curly hair. In 2016, however, it’s a drinking game. The two items peacefully coexist in both eras, but I love how our sensibilities have changed.
All in all, there’s some really nice stuff in Mr. Pasco’s puzzle. I liked the “Seinfeld” shout-outs of MAN PURSE and IT’S GO TIME, RICE-A-RONI, WHAT’S THAT, ESTATE TAX, HOT AIR, U.S.O. TOUR, STAN LEE, BAD EGGS and “I LOVE L.A.”
• 17A: Misdirection alert! Who among us doesn’t have certain “Trust issues”? But there’s more than one kind of trust, and today we’re supposed to be thinking about last will and testament issues, so the answer is ESTATE TAX.
• 32A:I would have thought that Mr. Pasco debuted the Seinfeld reference MAN PURSE, but apparently Caleb Madison got there first in 2014.
• 8D: On first reading, you might think that “On end, to Donne” is asking for a poetic synonym for “on end, “ but not today. John Donne was a poet and a man of words, so even he could appreciate the fact that “on end” is an ANAGRAM of his surname.
• 12D: “Entertainment for general audiences” is another misleading clue (are you having fun yet? I hope you are. This is the best part of crossword solving, in my opinion). My first thought was of G-rated movies, but the clue turns out to be about a U.S.O. TOUR.
• 14D: Fun fact: Comic artist STAN LEE has made 28 cameo appearances in Marvel movies. For those STAN LEE fans out there, here they are.
• 23D: SASHA Fierce was an alter ego of the singer Beyoncé’s, until she supposedly killed her off in 2010. These days, she’s making some amazingLemonade.
• 27D: This clue is beautiful and cryptic. In this instance, “Batman?” does not refer to the Caped Crusader, it refers to Mudville’s mighty CASEY at the Bat.
• 33D: If you have new respect for POETS (and you should) because the clue reads “People thinking on their feet?”, it’s not just because they are mentally quick. Feet per line are ameasure of meter in formal poetry.
• 38D: I had a tough time getting this one just from the clue, “Song that starts ‘Hate New York City / It’s cold and it’s damp’”, but the answer is Randy Newman’s “I LOVE L.A.”:
It’s weird for me to see puzzles from my more “beginner” stage of constructing. It feels kind of like being forced to read my middle-school journal — looking back, there are always some choices I regret making, but at the same time, it’s a nice snapshot of who I was back then.
Let’s get the regrets out of the way first. My main gripe with this one is that I could have added more sparkle. I do like the entries in the SE stack (the impetus for the puzzle) and the fill overall is solid, but I’d try for some flashier entries nowadays — those stacks of sevens in the NW and SE scream “unused potential.”
Which isn’t to say I want to burn the thing to the ground — there’s still a nice touch of stuff personal to me. It’s full of the obligatory references to things I like: 32A and 61A came from the onset of my “Seinfeld” preoccupation (MANdelbaum! MANdelbaum! MANdelbaum!), there are clue shout-outs to Beyoncé at 23D and (somewhat obliquely) Taylor Swift at 34A. Plus the clue for 8D is my favorite among the clues I’ve written; did your mind jump to E’ER?
Overall I like today’s puzzle (and I’m happy to see it in The Times), but if I made it today, I’d probably see if I could get something more lively. Constructor’s qualms aside, I hope you enjoy the puzzle!