CTS #18: The Variable Crossword

Pop quiz! Enter the missing letter in each word. Stick with the first workable answer that comes into your head. We’ll review the answers later:

Scheme: PL_Y
Almost certainly biased: _EALOUS
Big no-no in many religions: POR_
Collapse: FA_L
Website traffic builder: CONTE_T
Doing the love dance: _ATING
Inspiring leader to many in the 21st century: O_AMA

Since you are reading this blog, the odds are good that you are sufficiently puzzle-minded to recognize that each of these words has at least two potential answers. It’s especially likely you figured it out if you got to OBAMA/OSAMA, the most famous “one letter different” pair in recent memory. Also, installment #17 of this series had the FINGER-PAINTING/FINGERPRINTING/FINGER-POINTING example. And the title of this installment is “The Variable Crossword.” Look, this wasn’t meant to be hard.

If you’ve seen Wordplay or traveled in crossword circles for very long, you’ve probably heard the tale of how a crossword dared to offer a PROGNOSTICATION about who’d be called MISTER PRESIDENT after 1996– in a manner of speaking. Will Shortz has called Jeremiah Farrell’s work “the most amazing crossword I’ve ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said ‘How dare you presume that Clinton will win!’ And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we’d made a whopper of a mistake!”

1996 was not a particularly close election year, and calling it for Clinton would have been a pretty safe gamble, had the Times prepared this puzzle in advance to run the day after the election. But the exclamation point in the center clue– “Lead story in tomorrow’s newspaper (!)”– tipped off a minority of solvers that a deeper game was being played here: that said clue had not one workable answer, but two: BOB DOLE / ELECTED/CLINTON / ELECTED. Each of the crossings had a clue that also worked both ways… more or less. To be honest, a couple of the clues were kind of a stretch.

Black Halloween animal: BAT/CAT
French 101 word: OUI/LUI
Provider of support, for short: BRA/IRA
Sewing shop purchase: YARD/YARN
Short writings: BIOS/BITS
Much-debated political inits.: ERA/NRA

BRA/IRA and BIOS/BITS don’t look quite right. Did anyone still think of BRA as “for short” for BRASSIERE, a word used far less commonly than BRA by 1996? Are Kitty Kelley and David McCullough’s BIOS “short” writings, or is that a labored way to imply the word is “short for” BIOGRAPHIES? But most crossword fans are prepared to give such things a little bit of a free pass, when someone accomplishes something entirely new with the form.

Which is a problem for this kind of puzzle, because now it’s been done, and that free pass is only good for one use. This species of puzzles remains exceedingly rare, and given Shortz’s fondness for the first of them, it seems likely that their scarcity has more to do with their difficulty than their popularity. Jim Horne, master of New York Times crossword puzzle data from the Will Shortz era, only tracks four, and the next is a 2003 Patrick Merrell, seven years later. (Searching through the Fiend database, I was able to find three others, all from indie sources.) Like its predecessor, it has a “prediction,” but this one hinges on the distinctly less earth-shaking question of whether Lance Armstrong would be a FOUR-TIME CHAMP or FIVE-TIME CHAMP at the end of the 2003 Tour de France. Whether he would eventually be a 7-TIME CHAMPION, or, later, an ACCUSED DOPER, is outside the scope of this grid.

The crossing clues for FOUR/FIVE are, at least, more ironclad than those of BOB DOLE/CLINTON: “Big lobby in D.C. (NEA/NRA),” “Related to: Suffix (ITIC/OTIC),” “Like some TV channels, briefly (VHF/UHF).” Only the first pair, NEA and NRA, are even part of a large set. The other two pairs represent clear, though unexciting, either-or choices.

Brendan Emmett Quigley’s 2010 “Forecast for Miami” falls somewhere in the middle of these two in terms of dramatic tension: it’s another sporting event, but at least a sporting event that has only two players. (Plus, well, more Americans care about football, even if, as Merrell claims, the Tour de France does have “the world’s largest live audience.”) Combining with the improv, the puzzle’s longest entry reads QB FROM NEW / ORLEANS WINS A / SUPER BOWL FOR / NFL’S COLTS/NFL SAINTS. Quigley also sneaks in the name PETER / ABIDE, the longest entry’s original author.

While “Devices that have speakers, for short (PCS/PAS)” is typically wry Quigley, and “Tennis term (NET/LET)” is decent, “They may be found in a shoot (PISTOLS/PISTILS)” seems a bit awkwardly worded. For that matter, so does this mysterious “QB FROM NEW ORLEANS” that our mysterious prognosticator hasn’t bothered to name, but maybe he’s just trying to preserve believability by not telling you that the Colts and Saints are switching quarterbacks at the last minute. It could happen.

Some more recent examples have just covered a general 50-50 choice, like Ethan Friedman’s 2006 BLACK/WHITE, clued as a “Shade of” EMPEROR PENGUINS and DAILY NEWSPAPERS. Friedman has the second longest string of variable cells in his grid, five to Farrell’s seven, and the crossings are fairly adroit, even if it makes for three fairly skimpy theme entries.

Had on one’s back: BORE/WORE
Not open: SLY/SHY
Skewer: PAN/PIN
Home, for one: PLACE/PLATE
Construction site sights: CRANKS/CRANES

Patrick Blindauer’s 2010 work includes a HEADS/TAILS variable and does not skimp on the theme content, adding in BOTH SIDES / OF THE COIN and CHANCES ARE / FIFTY-FIFTY. Relative to BLACK/WHITE, though, its crossing entries strain juuuust a little bit to keep their clues clean and sharp.

Compelling word: MUSH/MUST
They’re held by caddies: TEES/TEAS
Prevents from making further progress, in a way: TRIPS/TRAPS
Some drinks: ALES/ADES

The most recent Times example, a 2011 David J. Kahn, doesn’t have a prediction or a fifty-fifty choice, but it makes wry use of the fact that ANDREW JOHNSON and ANDREW JACKSON are two presidents, and the only two presidents, who “served as a US SENATOR from TENNESSEE.”

Cotton ___: BALLS/BOLLS
Captain James of the high seas: COOK/HOOK
It’s rich in sugar: CAKE/CANE

(I’m trying to maintain some pretense of objectivity, here, but “Captain James of the high seas” just makes my heart melt with its beauty.)

Finally, this Matt Gaffney is a remarkable oddity within this genre. It’s built not around a single variable string, but around five variable cells scattered through the grid, each of which can be summed up in its defining entry, W OR T. Although it ended up with some of the most labored clues in this sampling, it’s an experiment worth repeating (using the same tools we established for substitution crosswords, earlier– which would be helpful in constructing all of these crossings, come to think of it):

Made a decision (to): VOTED/VOWED
Set aside: ALLOT FOR or ALLOW FOR (?)
They move big things around: TOTERS/TOWERS
Enveloped entirely: TRAPPED/WRAPPED
Dominate, in a way: TALK OVER/WALK OVER
Like an old shirt’s fabric: TORN/WORN
Approximate location: THEREABOUTS/WHEREABOUTS (?)
Enclosed space at one end of the human life cycle: TOMB/WOMB (:-S)
Ground rule double, e.g.: STAT/SWAT

Sadly, Horne calls this kind of crossword the “schizo” crossword when a more accurate term would be “MPD.” Or we could just avoid the whole “comparing crosswords to specific mental disorders” thing altogether, and call them variable crosswords. Seems a little safer.

With variables, we’ve left the world of the run-on and entered the trickster category. Tricksters are crosswords that do something crosswords aren’t ordinarily supposed to do, causing greater potential frustration but also greater potential gratification in the solver.

Some tricksters are more apologetic than others. The JACKSON/JOHNSON grid begins its clue with “Either of the two presidents…” a turn of phrase that announces its variable nature right off the bat. Gaffney’s grid accompanies an announcement that one of its answers is the puzzle’s defining entry, but it doesn’t say which one (W OR T doubles as WORT). On his sports prediction, Quigley includes the coy note, “Do you doubt me? When have I ever led you astray, hmm? Exactly. So all you betting folk out there, you can trust me on this here prediction. You might ask yourself, how does he know? A magician never reveals his secrets.”

Shortz remembers the angry protests about the 1996 Farrell puzzle with a certain fondness, but, as ever, the name of the game is to be just solvable enough. Sometimes the magician needs to at least announce, “You’re going to see a trick.”

Can variable answers tell us anything about ourselves?

Remember the quiz at the beginning? Here come the answers. Be honest with yourself about how you did.

Almost certainly biased: JEALOUS/ZEALOUS
Big no-no in many religions: PORN/PORK
Collapse: FAIL/FALL
Website traffic builder: CONTENT/CONTEST
Doing the love dance: DATING/MATING
Inspiring leader to many in the 21st century: OBAMA/OSAMA

In my experience, the long habit of filling in one right answer sometimes blinds me to the possibility of another, equally correct answer, which is a problem for creative types. I think I would’ve had a hard time seeing PLAY after seeing PLOY, or PORN after PORK, or CONTEST after CONTENT. This might say that I see scheming as more devious and less admirable (PLAY is a more positive word than PLOY), which runs counter to how I see myself. On the other hand, my long experience with website CONTENT and scant experience with the more interactive CONTEST is no surprise, and my experience with Jewish dietary restrictions (and few friends who openly discuss pornography) makes PORK a natural fit.

In the other cases I’m likely to see both, but the choice of one word over another still might say something. FAIL is more modern parlance than FALL: the former is associated with “epic fail” and “too big to fail” while the latter is used more in classic literature. The negative clue for JEALOUS/ZEALOUS might test how you feel about religion, and DATING/MATING might determine your patience with courtship rituals. The OBAMA/OSAMA test seems more inconclusive: some frustrated neocons and disappointed Democrats would probably prefer not to admit that either one was an inspiring leader to many, but others would be more concerned about OSAMA’s influence than interested in remembering OBAMA’s fervent following. (And there’s another, more disturbing possibility, but we won’t dwell on that. Let’s just say that doing a crossword doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a decent person.)

You can go back through the other variable clues in this piece and view them in the same light. (Try it, it’s fun!)

To be a true personality test, though, fill-in-the-letter exercises would need two things: a scientific sample size… and uncrossed squares. The greater the percentage of people who answer an A-or-B question “A,” the less significance an “A” answer has, and the more a “B” answer has. And although creating a variable square that fits four different words, instead of the usual two, is an impressive feat by Farrell and all his followers, it’s hard to determine for sure whether the BOB DOLE ELECTED solvers got their answer from the crossings, or from wishful thinking. Science needs a simple binary choice. Most crosswords just have one variable too many.

Next week: The Vector Three. Not the title of a new Tom Clancy spy thriller, although it certainly should be.

About T Campbell

T Campbell is a crossword constructor and comics scriptwriter. Among his cruciverbal accomplishments are the Ubercross C-Spot (the largest puzzle to follow New York Times standard rules), Crossworlds, a collection of 50 science-fiction-themed puzzles, and the forthcoming On Crosswords: Callin' Out Them Squares.
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20 Responses to CTS #18: The Variable Crossword

  1. Karen says:

    Just wanted to say I like the crossword competition over in the Faans comic this week. Especially the leaderboard.

  2. ArtLvr says:

    Many thanks for this exposition/disquisition on the variable puzzle, and for working out how to show the alternating solutions so elegantly!

  3. Howard B says:

    I wanted to respond with a complimentary thank you for the article that included a letter switch, but even one that makes sense in context(content?) is difficult to create without using stilted language. So I see why we don’t see these often.

    Karen (& T Campbell) – that’s pretty darn amusing. (I see I also have to work much harder to reach the interdimensional level of competition).

  4. Amy Reynaldo says:

    T, thanks for that YouTube link (the “not necessarily a decent person” link). Ha! I love those videos when the content resonates.

    Thanks for compiling this collection of variable crosswords. Next time one of them pops up, we’ll have a handy reference to previous incarnations.

  5. J. T. Williams says:

    One of my favorite variable puzzles was the tic-tac-toe puzzle a year or two ago. I think it was Tyler’s, but I’m not absolutely certain. The fun part was that while in some ways it was variable (three squares that could be either X or O), a later clue warned the reader that only one answer was actually right. As I recall, it was an early week puzzle, so a lot of us speed solvers never even noticed the trick!

  6. Jim Horne says:

    “Sadly, Horne calls this kind of crossword the ‘schizo’ crossword when a more accurate term would be ‘MPD.’ Or we could just avoid the whole ‘comparing crosswords to specific mental disorders’ thing altogether, and call them ‘variable crosswords’.”

    Hmmm. Actually, Mr. Campbell, Horne calls them “Schizophrenic” rather than just “Schizo” but either way, I find the term to be poetic, humorous, and, sorry, rather more accurate than “variable.” While schizophrenia can refer to dementia praecox, dictionaries also support the common and, in this case, specifically intended sense of a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.

    And this is what I find fascinating about crosswords, crossworders, and crossword blogs. I used to write a crossword blog myself. A fair portion of the comments I received, and the majority of the email that came to me, were from solvers who either insisted a word or clue was wrong, or insisted it was offensive. In almost every case, dictionaries supported the word usage as both accurate and unobjectionable. (Will and his team are very, very good at their job.)

    Rather than complain, though, I find that the propensity to quickly object on technical grounds, or to quickly take offense, says something important or at least interesting about we who solve word puzzles. We care about words. We really do. Words mean something deeply important and personal to us. So I say, let the debate rage on. After all, if we don’t argue the case for words, who will?

  7. Pomeranian says:

    I also find Horne’s term “schizophrenic” unfortunate and just plain wrong. “Variable” is more accurate but maybe a little too general and bland. It’s hard to come up with something better though, so “variable” it is — for now.

  8. Martin says:

    How is “variable” more accurate? I can think of no case where it is used to describe a situation with exactly two states. It’s so analog.

    Actually, I think “bipolar” is better than “schizophrenic” because we’re talking about something that can take on two states, not something that splits in half. But my guess is that that won’t be seen as an improvement by some people. “AC/DC” probably not either.

    How about Janus entries?

  9. pannonica says:

    As long as we’re forming sides, I’m with Jim Horne on this one. Knowing that the Greek-derived prefix schiz– simply means ‘split’ or ‘cleft,’ I was going to post a rebuttal. But the dictionary (m-w) defined “schizo” as a “schizophrenic individual,” so I abandoned my defense. Learning from his comment that Horne in fact uses “schizophrenic,” which has an adjectival sense much closer to the root meaning, I’ve reconsidered.

    Not much I can add to Jim’s eloquent and diplomatic comment, but I will deviate from his high ground to observe that, sadly in our era of PC panic, people are often too quick to take offense at a perceived infraction, sometimes revealing their own (non-PC) preoccupations. How often does it seem that a person complaining about racism or sexism or what-have-you is stretching interpretations or simply seeing ghosts, which prompts others to wonder “where did that come from?”

    T Campbell, I’m not accusing you of being a secret mental-illness discriminator; I’m lamenting the eggshell-walking climate that compels so many to be overly conservative in their writing, speech, and perhaps thought, for fear of offense. Such black-and-white definitions destroy subtleties of meaning to diminish language and discourse.

    As Jim says, we care about words. And so much more.

  10. pannonica says:

    Martin, I agree with you that “variable” is far too variable for this application.

    Both “schizophrenic” and “bipolar” (neither with a mental illness connotation, of course) can work, depending on how one is looking at the puzzle. If it’s in the context of solving, then the process is indeed schizophrenic; if it’s as an object, then you can see it as having intrinsically bipolar qualities.

    Perhaps—avoiding any chance of being associated with mental illness—it could be called a Schrödinger, existing in two states until it’s solved? Or, taking a cue from Necker cubes and illusions such as the spinning dancer, maybe it could be called—inelegantly, for sure—a bistable puzzle?

  11. Jeffrey says:

    While I accept Jim is using the term in a dictionary accepted method, I do have an issue with using mental illness terms in this context. I also cringe by the many times we see “kook”, “looney”, “loco” and other such terms in crosswords. After all, it would be lame to use physical deformity nicknames in this manner.

  12. T Campbell says:

    @Karen, Howard B: Thanks! Crossword fans are going to find a few more things to enjoy in this story over the next several weeks.

    @J.T.Wiiliams: I’d love a link to that puzzle if you have it. I actually considered making such a puzzle very recently.

    @Martin: Nowhere in my definition of variable crosswords is it required for there to be only two possible answers. It’s just that if building a string of 3-7 variable cells with two values apiece is hard, three values apiece is Sisyphean. But see the example in the last entry, FINGER-PAINTING/FINGER-POINTING/FINGERPRINTING.

    @Jim Horne: While the text of your site calls ‘em “schizophrenic,” the link which I posted is http://www.xwordinfo.com/Schizo, and since it’s a common shortening I just worked off that.

    Yeah, there’s a #2 definition that matches what you’ve got, but read next to the #1 definition (which is the one medical professionals would use), I just find it CONFUSING, man. I’m not sure what crossword type I’d associate with disordered thinking, hallucinations and delusions, and MPD or DID sounds too dry. One term that means both, I don’t know what to do with. That’s my REAL reason for rejecting it: the imagined mobs of protestors are just me having a little fun.

    Also, thinking about it some more, a better metaphor for MPD might be those crosswords with multiple sets of clues you see in the final round of the ACPT, the ones that are terrifying and impossible for the A solvers and merely insolent for the C solvers. More on that sort of thing later.

    It’s extreeeemely ironic for me to come down on the conservative or prescriptivist side of any lexical debate. I salute your courage in dealing with 100 skillion oh-so-easily-offended New York Times puzzle fans.

    Oh, and thanks also for the immense body of research that I keep shamelessly ripping off and adding dumb jokes to. Tune in next week for more of that very thing!

  13. Erik says:

    D’oh. I went to PORT (the wine) instead of PORK.

  14. J. T. Williams says:

    Well, it doesn’t appear that it was Tyler, and I can’t remember which constructor it was. I remember that whoever it was did an interview with Wordplay in which he said that the puzzle was one of his favorites because he had included a hidden trick that a lot of people didn’t even pick up on. Hopefully one of the regulars here with total recall of every theme ever used (Joon?) will remember it, or at least who the constructor was.

  15. J. T. Williams says:

    Ah, I found it thanks to the excellent XWord Info tool. It WAS Tyler, March 5, 2003 (okay, not as recent as I thought!)

  16. HH says:

    Why is everyone so opposed to offending people?

  17. jamie says:

    HH, roaring laughing.

  18. pannonica says:

    I thought I straddled that fence rather gracefully.

  19. KB says:

    @HH: Nice

  20. Alex says:

    Okay, the twin laughing monsters in the Rorschach test are starting to freak me out.

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