In a Messy World, Word Games Are Neat

Things are more chaotic than ever, but the crossword puzzle is elegant and finite. As I methodically fill in the blank squares with letters, tapping into the well of knowledge I’ve acquired from every other crossword puzzle I’ve ever done, I’m overcome with a (fleeting) sense of solace. Each clue is a riddle and every answer has its proper place. It’s my job to crack the code, to figure out where it all goes, and unlike almost everything else in life, I always succeed.

In spite of the divine neatness of the crossword puzzle, it relies on a distinctly human sort of logic. “If you’re a piece of artificial intelligence software, you might have a hard time solving a crossword,” Adrienne Raphael writes in her brief history of word games. “The best crossword-solving AI in the world isn’t yet better than the best human: the AI can fill in the grid pretty quickly, but in terms of resolving that grid through riddle logic, humans are still a step ahead.” If you do an obscene amount of crossword puzzles like me, you learn a new sort of patois: you internalize oft-repeated clues and answers. I know the Aral Sea is in Asia, and it’s drying up! I’ve adopted the word “eke” as in “eke out a living” into my own lexicon, which appears in virtually every crossword (in the New York Times, at least). Crossword jargon also filters into my writing practice: instead of using confused, I might use “at sea” and if I’m describing a raucous crowd, I might say they are “aroar.”

Crosswords were my gateway drug into other word games, and now I find myself hopelessly addicted. Every day I devour Spelling Bee, an excellent anagram game from the New York Times, which gives you seven letters and asks you to find as many words as possible that must include one of the letters. Spelling Bee is the first thing I look at it when I wake up in the morning, and for the rest of the day, my mind teems with anagrams. I only have eyes for letters. I’ll think of a word, maybe I’m outside smoking, sheltered underneath the awning of my building on a dreary day, and do a quick mental jumble to see how many other words I can create: CLOUDY, LOUDLY, DULLY, DOLLY, O’DOUL (a great nonalcoholic beer), COOLLY, COLDLY, ODDLY, et al.

After getting the mandate to shelter in place, this obsession inevitably escalated into me crafting my own Spelling Bee puzzles. So I thought I’d share some of the puzzles I made with my loyal subscribers.

I go by the same rules at the weekly Spelling Bee in the New York Times Magazine: each word must be 5+ letters and use the center letter. You can use the same letter as many times as you want in each word. You get 1 point per word, and 3 points if the word includes every single letter. Unlike the Times, however, slang and other fun words are acceptable answers.

Let’s make this into a little contest. Reply to this email with a list of words you found on all of my spelling bees and your total score (or, if you found a link to this through other sources and want to play, you can find my email address on my website) and the two Evemail readers with the highest scores get a free year-long subscription to my paid newsletter. *infomercial voice* “That’s a $70 value. But today it could be yours for free! notincludingshippingandhandlingtermsandconditionsapplyseewebsitefordetails.”

Have fun!


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