I enjoy crossword puzzles. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.
My puzzle habit was formed during ten years of daily commuting from the suburbs to downtown Washington DC, via DC’s Metro system. Now, after more than three decades of puzzle-solving, I have an appreciation for the subtle science and exact art of crossword-puzzle making.
Filling in a hard crossword puzzles requires an odd assortment of skills. It becomes roughly equal parts of:
- Knowing the structure of language (e.g., plurals usually end in “s”).
- Straight-up trivia (e.g., Pierre is the capital of South Dakota).
- Current pop culture (e.g., Grammy winners).
- Older pop culture.
- A good sense for puns, alternative word meanings, and the like.
Much of it has a unique crossword-puzzle slant, owing to a chronic need for vowels. For example, ONO (Yoko), ARLO (Guthrie), OCALA (Florida) all appear in crosswords far out of proportion to their importance in the real world. As do the many, many vowel-rich four-letter rivers of Europe (e.g., ODER, YSER, URAL, ARAL, AARE, …) .
The popular-culture aspects of crossword puzzles typically don’t age well. It’s hard to pick up a 20-year-old book of difficult crossword puzzles and fill them in. The world has moved on. Pop-culture names and terms familiar to every well-read reader in 2001 are seldom on the top of the tongue two decades later.
That said, they are never truly current, either. It takes a while for any new pop-culture phenomenon or phrase to work its way into the day’s crossword puzzles. So what you really get in crosswords is pop culture with a lag.
Which brings me to IED. That was in a puzzle I worked yesterday, with the clue “hazard to troops”. It was, in that sense, a perfect crossword puzzle word. Lots of vowels, and a term that every U.S. resident would have absorbed over the past couple of decades.
But IEDs haven’t been in the news of late. Which is a good thing. And I can only hope that this clue and answer will be completely mystifying to some puzzle-solver a couple of decades from now.
My point being that sometimes the news ought to be about what hasn’t happened recently. We ought to see a great big headline stating that “No American troops died in Afghanistan over the past two months”. Or that we failed to spend $20B propping up a corrupt and unpopular government over that same time span.
But that sort of obvious good news just isn’t what the popular press is all about. Too many other things that are better click-bait. U.S. casualties that didn’t occur are the sort of thing that will only sink into our collective consciousness a decade or two from now. If then.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy the absence of the IED from our popular press. Even if that word is still in crossword puzzles, for the time being.