A Puzzlemaster’s Parlance

Jenna Goldman '18

Will Shorts '77 from his visit to the school in 2008. Photo courtesy of UVAToday.

Will Shorts '77 from his visit to the school in 2008. Photo courtesy of UVAToday.

Ucalegon: [noun] A neighbor whose house is on fire or has burned down. 

“It’s a ridiculously specific word and that’s why I love it,” said New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor, Will Shortz ‘77. The Virginia Law Weekly had the opportunity to interview Mr. Shortz about how he contemplates words and language, and how we as budding lawyers can learn a thing or two from UVa’s most famous wordsmith. 

In his capacity as puzzle editor, Mr. Shortz receives between 75 and 100 puzzle submissions per week. “The biggest part of the job is actually looking at the submissions and deciding which ones are the best.”

What are the hallmarks of a great puzzle? “I’m looking for fresh, colorful vocabulary that is generally familiar to New York Times readers.” He doesn’t mean the language should be simplistic, “I like an interesting, difficult word sometimes but I want, generally speaking, familiar vocabulary.” 

After receiving a submission, he marks it up on paper (the medium by which he requires all puzzles to be submitted), then he makes notes on what he likes and doesn’t like. “Everyone gets a response: yes or no.” 

He likes words like “errata page” and “trashmouth” and “clam juice.” Words he doesn’t like: “‘Heme’ as in a deep red pigment, the color of blood.” That type of word is what he calls a “crosswordy-word” or “crosswordese” if you will: “It’s vocabulary that people know mainly from crosswords, not from real life.” 

A career writing puzzles was always the goal for Mr. Shortz. The summer before he began at UVa Law, he interned for Penny Press Puzzle Magazine in Connecticut, where he saw how he could have a career in puzzles “without living in abject poverty.” 

When he began law school, Shortz planned to practice for a few years then transition to a career writing and editing puzzles. But in the spring semester of his first year he wrote a letter home stating otherwise. “I told my parents I would be dropping out of UVa at the end of the year and go right into puzzles. And you could imagine how that news went over.” 

His mother, a writer herself and an influence on Mr. Shortz’s love of words, responded thoughtfully about why he should remain in school. “I thought she made good points, so I went ahead and got my J.D. and then went into puzzles.” 

Though Shortz never practiced law, he is grateful for his UVa education and uses it to this day. 

“I think a legal education is just a great education for the world. It teaches you to handle complex problems, divide them into their constituent parts, and deal with each part individually.” The author of over 500 puzzle books has never used an agent or a lawyer. “I look at and analyze my own contracts.”   

Even after forty years as a professional puzzle editor, Mr. Shortz still makes the rare, albeit comical, error that underscores the importance of precise language. A clue last year:1996 horror movie with four sequels the answer was ‘Scream.’ “The problem was that there were four Scream films in total, but only three sequels. Of course the first one wasn’t a sequel.” 

Another clue: “Head of state who resigned in 1974” the answer, “Meir, as in Prime Minister Golda Meir.” So what’s the problem? “In Israel she is the head of government but she’s not the head of state, that’s the President. We tend to overlook that distinction in the United States because our President is both head of government and head of state.” Mr. Shortz explained that there are 30,000 clues in the New York Times crossword each year, and occasionally mistakes happen. 

Some are beyond the puzzle master’s control. The clue: The only NFL team to go 0 and 16 for a season. “The intended answer was the ‘Lions’ and the puzzle was put to bed on December 30 for publication on January 7. Over that weekend, literally two days later, the Cleveland Browns completed their season 0 and 16. So the clue was correct when the puzzle was put to bed, but by the time the puzzle appeared in print it was wrong. Of course a lot of people follow NFL so I heard a lot about that.”

As our faithful readers know, the Law Weekly has toyed with creating crossword puzzles in lieu of the usual Sudoku puzzles, always with vitriolic backlash. We asked Mr. Shortz for advice in coping with such responses, and he responded with a laugh, “The sorts of people who are drawn to crosswords tend to be persnickety and care a lot about language.” One anecdote he shared: “The answer was ‘toad’ and the clue was ‘little hopper’ and someone wrote in saying ‘toads, sir, waddle, they do not hop.’” We assured Mr. Shortz we would not be discouraged by the haters and would continue our attempts.  

Mr. Shortz has lots of fans on the Law Weekly, and we are in awe of how Mr. Shortz, as one staff member put it, “turned a boring old degree into a career that is fun and interesting.” The staff was eager to ask him a variety of questions about his body of work, all of which he graciously entertained.

One staff member asked what first inspired his use of the word ‘ecru,’ Mr. Shortz replied with a laugh “Well that’s an example of crossword-ese.” He has used it 159 times since he became editor in 1993, usually with the clue “‘brown, stocking shade’ or ‘like a decorator shade’ or ‘neutral hue.’” 

In another pressing question, we asked Mr. Shortz about potentially reprising his role as the Riddler in an inevitable Batman reboot, “If they were to ask me, yeah.” The question was in reference to lending his expertise to provide riddles for Jim Carrey’s character in the 1995 film Batman Forever.  

“Each riddle had to contain a number—that was the one constraint.” Though the Batman franchise has not yet asked Mr. Shortz, he recently filmed an episode of Brooklyn 99, which will air March 20. 

Mr. Shortz has been interviewed by Oprah, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, and has been featured on Nightline, and 60 Minutes. His favorite spotlight was in the 2006 documentary film largely about Mr. Shortz’s work, “Wordplay.” “At the time it came out it was one of the top twenty-five highest grossing documentaries of all time.” 

What is his advice for law students and lawyers wanting to improve their vocabulary and word choice precision? “Solve The New York Times crossword!” This is not merely a plug to sell papers. The weekly crossword has on average seventy-six answers covering seventy-six different topics. Mr. Shortz believes this exposure to a variety of language that individuals in one profession might not come into contact with is a valuable teaching tool. 

But, he cautions, “You shouldn’t do the puzzle because you think it’s good for you. That’s a bore.” Instead, “You should do it and you should enjoy it. Here’s the thing, you should do crosswords for their entertainment value and the nice thing about it is that there are lots of things in life that are entertaining: crosswords are good for you.”

You can read the transcript for this interview and listen to the audio at www.lawweekly.org