Downtime

The NYT Crossword Puzzle’s Use of an Ethnic Slur Says a Lot About the State of Crossword Puzzling

A crossword puzzle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by waffleboy/Flickr.

The clue for 2 down in the New York Times’ first crossword puzzle of the new year was nothing unusual: “Pitch to the head, informally.” But the answer stopped many puzzlers in their tracks: BEANER, which, as critics quickly pointed out, is also a slur used against Mexicans. “I’m very sorry for the distraction,” longtime puzzle editor Will Shortz wrote in a response posted that afternoon. “For any solver who was offended by 2-Down in today’s puzzle, I apologize.”

It was a minor dust-up, all things considered, but it says something about the state of crossword puzzles in 2019. Shortz explained in his sort-of-apology that neither he nor the paper’s digital puzzles editor, Joel Fagliano, had ever heard the word used as a slur before. But he also said that he came across the alternative meaning in researching the puzzle, and that constructor and blogger Jeff Chen had also brought it to his attention before the puzzle’s publication. So ignorance is not really the defense here: Shortz concedes that he had the opportunity to change the puzzle in advance. Instead, the fact that he hadn’t heard the slur before seems offered up as a suggestion that the word really isn’t that bad, because it’s not in widespread use—or, perhaps, that his presumed audience wouldn’t notice it.

It’s true that “beaner” is a somewhat antiquated term—it originated with insults like “bean-eater”—and it’s perfectly plausible that Shortz wasn’t familiar with it. When the comedian Carlos Mencia used it in his act in the early 2000s, the Washington Post called it “a term in transition”: a derogatory word in the process of being reclaimed, with a linguistic journey that sometimes ends in mainstream acceptability (queer) and sometimes does not (the N-word). Still, the Oxford English Dictionary characterizes it as “offensive.” Suffice to say, it’s a word that’s better for almost everyone to avoid.

Shortz’s defense was that “any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword” (emphasis his). He mentioned entries like “GO O.K.,” which has been clued as “Proceed all right” but is a slur when the letters are taken together. Chen, who cautioned Shortz against using the word and called it an “ugly blot” on the puzzle, approaches borderline words like this differently. He takes offense to the use of CHINK in puzzles, he wrote on the site he runs, XWord Info. But he can understand why others use it in puzzles, since “a chink in one’s armor” is a common expression. The justification for BEANER is thinner. A pitch at someone’s head is more often called a “beanball,” so it’s not even a common baseball phrase. If it’s a clunker on its own terms and offends a significant share of puzzlers, why use it? “Puzzles ought to be enjoyable, a smile-inducing diversion from the daily struggles of life,” Chen wrote. “Even if BEANER punches just a small number of solvers, that makes it worth changing.”

The Times puzzle attracts so much grumbling in large part because it is the gold standard. Shortz deserves credit for maintaining that status and for innovating in ways puzzlers now take for granted. “Shortz sometimes courts controversy by pushing the envelope in ways that spark discussion,” Jim Horne, who created Xword Info, told me by email. “Crosswords that never evolve would be boring.” Horne said that Shortz has livened up the art form in his quarter century at the Times, in part by introducing brand names, pop culture, and slang. One of his puzzles clued PENIS as “The _____ mightier … ” In 2016, the paper published a brilliant puzzle by Ben Tausig in which four squares could be correctly filled with either an M or an F. (For example, the clue “Tough stuff to walk through” could be either MIRE or FIRE.) The “revealer” answer running through the middle of the grid was GENDER FLUID.

Purposeful experimentation is one thing. But Shortz’s occasional tin ear, especially on race and gender issues, has increasingly come under fire. The Times puzzle is “old and kind of racist,” the Outline wrote in a post collecting questionable clues and words like HOMIE, SISSIES, and ESKIMO. In 2012, the word ILLEGAL faced backlash because of its clue: “One caught by border patrol.” Shortz offered a similar explanation for that gaffe as he did for BEANER, writing that he had no idea the usage was controversial and that he regretted having offended people with the clue. A few years later, he expressed regret about the eye-roll-worthy clue “Exasperated comment from a feminist.” Answer: MEN.

Speaking of men: The puzzling world has a reputation as the province of nerdy white ones. But that’s changing, which helps explain the increasingly noisy pushback against tone-deaf clues and answers. Last year saw the launch of Inkubator, a subscription service that publishes crosswords constructed by women, and Queer Qrosswords, a charity puzzle pack from LGBTQ creators with LGBTQ themes. Meanwhile, rival puzzles have sprung up with fresher sensibilities. (Slate Plus members have access to the American Values Club puzzle, for one!) The New Yorker launched an excellent weekly puzzle last year, with an unusually diverse roster of contributors and a contemporary vibe that’s both intellectual and zingy. The most recent New Yorker puzzle included references to Morrissey, Art Basel, Instagram, Hannah Arendt, and the Babadook (“Horror character turned queer icon”). By listening just a little more attentively to readers, the NYT crossword puzzle could feel more at home in 2019, too.