Crossword puzzles are everywhere. But how inclusive are the bylines and clues?

Millions of people start their days by solving a crossword puzzle, but how inclusive are the clues, solutions and bylines?  (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Millions of people start their days by solving a crossword puzzle, but how inclusive are the clues, solutions and bylines? (Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Crossword puzzles are a common pastime for millions of people around the world, but some crossword hobbyists says diversity is often lacking in who designs the puzzles and what's represented in them.

The issue of inclusion of race, gender, sexuality and other categories has been debated in the crossword world for decades, according to Will Nediger of London, Ont., a crossword constructor for nearly 20 years who freelances with the New York Times.

"When you only have puzzles that represent a certain kind of topic or are only of interest to straight, white men, a lot of people won't see themselves reflected in the grid," he said.

"Almost all people I've worked with from underrepresented groups have reported feeling like they're not smart enough to do them, when in fact they are, but the subject matter of the crosswords just doesn't speak to them."

A recent documentary, Across and Down, dove into this and found that women, Indigenous, Black and queer-identifying people have been almost invisible in crossword puzzles. It aired on CBC's The Passionate Eye on Oct. 28, and highlights a movement to diversify and make crosswords a more inclusive gaming culture.

WATCH | The Passionate Eye looks at how crossword puzzles can be more inclusive:

"Someone decides what words get in, what's part of the clues, and in doing that they're deciding what should be common knowledge for every one of us," said co-writer Deborah Wainwright.

"If the editor making those decisions has only one perspective, his or her own, then the chances are that other lived experiences or cultures are probably going to be left out."

A snowball effect

Nediger attributes the lack of diversity to editors who tend to act as gatekeepers, along with the sector's reliance on word lists — similar to dictionaries but with more references to people and culture.

Submitted by Will Nediger
Submitted by Will Nediger

Word lists largely rely on words previously been used in crosswords, and if ones in the past haven't been very inclusive, then subsequent word lists won't be either, Nediger said.

"It takes a lot of thought to actually change a word list to be more inclusive, so it ends up being sort of a snowball effect," he said.

Wainwright found a specific change that's been implemented has been around phrasing clues in a way that doesn't "other" certain groups, she said.

Constructing crosswords has to be a balancing act between reflecting the creator's voice while ensuring broader groups are represented, Nediger said. This is a lens he always keeps in mind when designing his own puzzles, he said.

Both Nediger and Wainwright believe things are slowly changing as a result of various discussions about representation, but say a lot more needs to be done.

"Representation is good in and of itself, but also in the sense that if you want your crosswords to reach a large audience and for them to speak to others, then it should be created by a wide array of people from all sorts of different backgrounds," Nediger said.