Fighting Words: The New York Times Crossword Puzzle as Cultural Divide

Venn diagram depicting the teensy intersection where Social Media Mavens, Social Justice Warriors, and Crossword Puzzle Solvers intersect
Extremely scientific artist conception (h/t Creately)
Renowned puzzle master Will Shortz uncorked an online can of worms when he declined to edit the word “beaner” out of a New York Times crossword

Those of us who were nursing our hangovers probably missed out. But on New Year’s Day, the nexus where Social Media Mavens, Social Justice Warriors, and Crossword Puzzle Solvers meet got a rare moment in the spotlight when the New York Times deployed BEANER as the answer to 2 Down in its daily crossword.

Screenshot of the online version of the January 1, 2019, New York Times crossword, highlighting "BEANER" as the answer to 2 Down, the provided clue to which was "Pitch to the head, informally"
2 Down: “Pitch to the head, informally” — or “A Mexican or a person of Mexican descent, informally and offensively” (screenshot via Twitter)

The clue: “Pitch to the head, informally.”

Them was fighting words.

As every baseball fan knows, the common term for a pitch to the head is beanball. There are other ways of referring to the act — head-hunting, and, from the recipient’s point of view, having your bell rung, come to mind — but beaner is not one of them.

In everyday parlance, beaner is an offensive term aimed at Mexicans or people of Mexican descent.

Evidently, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz was unaware of all this until it was pointed out to him — first, politely, by a crossword blogger, and subsequently, more pointedly, in a series of Twitter-launched beanballs.

Jeff Chen, a crossword creator who operates the popular Times-centric site Xword Info, gets an early look at the Gray Lady’s puzzles, which allows him to post his commentaries while subscribers are still uncapping their pens. (Diehards never use pencil.) Chen devoted a chunk of his analysis of the January 1 puzzle to expressing incredulity at the fact that Shortz let that tone-deaf 2 Down combo pass through.

“Will and I had a dialogue over BEANER, an offensive term slung at people from Mexico,” wrote Chen. “I wondered if it might be a West Coast/East Coast thing, so I alerted Will about this. He thought about it but decided that since there is a valid dictionary definition, people would have to just ignore the secondary meaning.

“I generally think Will does a great job in editing the NYT puzzle — hard to argue with results, with solvership exploding into the hundreds of thousands under his helm,” Chen continued. “This is one of the less than 5% of things that I strongly disagree with, though. Yes, BEANER is in the dictionary as a baseball term. But a pitch at someone’s head is usually called a ‘bean ball,’ not a BEANER….

“An ugly blot on an otherwise pleasant puzzle.”

Fellow crossword connoisseur Rex Parker also got his licks in early, with a pre-midnight blog post and a follow-up Twitter thread.

By Tuesday, Shortz had issued an apology on the Times’s website.

“I’m very sorry for the distraction about BEANER (2D) in today’s fine puzzle by Gary Cee,” the crossword editor wrote, adding that neither he nor digital puzzles editor Joel Fagliano had ever heard the slur before. “Maybe we live in rarefied circles.”

Shortz went on to explain that by his lights, “any benign meaning of a word is fair game for a crossword.” As examples, he cited “entries like GO O.K. (which we clued last April as ‘Proceed all right,’ but which as a solid word is a slur), CHINK (benign in the sense as a chink in one’s armor), etc.”

Though Shortz mused that it might be time he rethought his approach, his tepid mea culpa wound up causing more disapprobation to rain down upon his head. The apology was promptly screenshot, passed around on Twitter — and mercilessly mocked.

Tweeted Mexican-American cultural commentator Gustavo Arellano: “That someone at The NY Times didn’t think that having ‘beaner’ as an answer to a crossword puzzle clue shows AGAIN how clueless they are about Mexican-American ANYTHING. ’TAN PENDEJOS (does anyone know what ’tan means?)”

Another commenter pointed out that Shortz had shrugged off an analogous slip-up earlier in 2018, after the Times published a puzzle containing “SOUL SISTER” (clue: “Best black female friend.”)

By Wednesday, news coverage of the slur (and Shortz’s lukewarm apology) was making the rounds.

The most thorough analysis was offered by Slate’s Ruth Graham. In “The NYT Crossword Puzzle’s Use of an Ethnic Slur Says a Lot About the State of Crossword Puzzling,” Graham made it clear that while Shortz is rightly hailed as a crossword trailblazer, he’s also earning a reputation as an old fogy.

Beaner was wrong. And if Shortz was going to apologize for it — which he did — he should have done so unreservedly. Which he didn’t.  

“Purposeful experimentation is one thing,” wrote Graham. “But Shortz’s occasional tin ear, especially on race and gender issues, has increasingly come under fire. The Times puzzle is ‘old and kind of racist,’ the Outline wrote in a post collecting questionable clues and words like HOMIE, SISSIES, and ESKIMO. In 2012, the word ILLEGAL faced backlash because of its clue: ‘One caught by border patrol.’ Shortz offered a similar explanation for that gaffe as he did for BEANER, writing that he had no idea the usage was controversial and that he regretted having offended people with the clue. A few years later, he expressed regret about the eye-roll-worthy clue ‘Exasperated comment from a feminist.’ Answer: MEN.”

It’s hard to overstate the towering figure Will Shortz cuts among word nerds. And things get a tad thorny when the culture-at-large zooms in on the finer points of word nerdity. But beaner was wrong. And if Shortz was going to apologize for it — which he did — he should have done so unreservedly. Which he didn’t.

I emailed Jeff Chen to clarify the timeline of his exchange with Shortz. He confirmed to me that he corresponded with the puzzle editor well before the January 1 puzzle went to press.

“We get preview copies about a week before they go to print,” Chen responded. “Will and I exchanged some emails about BEANER after I alerted him to the ethnic slur (I think it might be more common on the West Coast than East Coast?). He ended up deciding to leave it as is, given the dictionary-supported baseball meaning.”

I also got a note from Jim Horne. Horne, who founded both XWord Info and the Times’s Wordplay blog, wanted to emphasize how problematic it is to alter a finished puzzle.

“Late changes to the crossword can be difficult,” Horne wrote. “The NYT production process, like that of any major newspaper, is complex and relies on a routine that involves many people and many production steps. Late changes can happen, but it’s a ripcord that Will Shortz would rather not pull too often. He may well wish he’d taken these steps on the BEANER puzzle, but one can’t easily just change one word and a few clues. Camera-ready artwork has to be re-created, digital files already sent out for the electronic versions have to be re-created, the syndication flow is interrupted too. It’s a big deal.”

It’s important to bear that in mind, though it might not immediately occur to people who are unfamiliar with the intricacies of crosswords, publishing, and syndication.

Speaking of intricacies, it takes a bit of effort to sort out the beaner references online.

Many pertain to the term’s pejorative sense, and of those, only a handful are to be found in dictionaries. The word isn’t in Merriam-Webster online. Ditto The term appears not to be allowed in Scrabble. The Oxford University Press site offers this definition: “A Mexican or person of Mexican descent (North American; informal, offensive).” Wikipedia, too, has it, deeming the word “derogatory slang for Mexicans or people of Mexican descent.”

I was able to reference the beanball variant in three searches. Not in the New York Times, where the term beaner appears most prominently in stories recounting the horrific details that surround the 2008 slaying of Marcelo Lucero. A 37-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, Lucero was fatally stabbed after being taunted by a group of seven teenage boys on eastern Long Island. The so-called Patchogue 7 murder was prosecuted as a hate crime.

The most prominent site that contains beaner/beanball, Princeton University’s WordNet, returns “a baseball deliberately thrown at the batter’s head.” The Free Dictionary crawls WordNet and therefore has it too. The third site that found beaner was Anagrammer, which spat out the same info — plus three links to published crossword puzzles: a King Features Syndicate puzzle from June 18, 2015, a Wall Street Journal puzzle from June 6, 2003, and this week’s Times puzzle. (The clue used in both of the earlier puzzles: “Pitch to the noggin.”)

While we’re digging into intricacies, I would suggest that the central issue here — the necessity for cultural sensitivity when dealing with language — is somewhat more complicated than a Twitter clamor can unpack.

It is (to risk potential censure) a slippery slope.

Below is a hastily assembled list of several dozen words, each of which may evoke derogatory connotations when taken in a certain context:

dike (dyke)

Now that most of us agree on beaner, let’s move on to…well, we can probably flag mickpolack, and shylock, can’t we? They’re pretty unambiguous. How about redskin? That’s a rude one!

But what if the clue is “Washington footballer”? Or “Feature of some potatoes”? In a search on Anagrammer, which returns results from several dozen puzzle producers going back to 2002, redskin turns up nine examples. Of those, only three originated in the United States; the most recent, in October 2014, was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

How about gypsy? Some U.S. reference sources recognize the term as pejorative (Romany is preferred). But it turns up in puzzles all the time — “Word before moth or cab,” for example.

Perhaps the best way to deal with derogatory terms is to recognize that regardless of how one phrases a crossword clue, its answer appears in the grid without context, which opens it to more ambiguous interpretation, even to inveterate solvers who come to the table well aware that the genre is, first and foremost, wordplay.

Which brings us to the landmark 1942 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire — a fascinating First Amendment case that I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing about until yesterday.

Walter Chaplinsky was a Jehovah’s Witness who was assailed by a crowd while publicly proselytizing in Rochester, New Hampshire, and arrested a short time later for calling the town marshal a “damned Fascist” and a “damned racketeer.”

Some of the facts surrounding the incident were the subject of a dispute too convoluted to lay out, but Chaplinsky’s claim of wrongful arrest went all the way to the nation’s highest court, which unanimously ruled in favor of the state, finding that “the appellations ‘damned racketeer’ and ‘damned Fascist’ are epithets likely to provoke the average person to retaliation, and thereby cause a breach of the peace.”

Ergo, according to Justice Frank Murphy, who authored the opinion:

Allowing the broadest scope to the language and purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words — those which, by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. [footnotes omitted, emphasis added]

Fighting words!

Perhaps instructively for our purposes, Chaplinsky didn’t settle much in the way of precedent — to the point where Cornell University’s handy Legal Information Institute prefaces its list of “Fighting Words” citations with a disclaimer: “The following cases show some of the instances in which the Supreme Court has invoked the fighting words doctrine. As shown, the scope of the doctrine changes between various cases.”

Additionally, Chaplinsky aside, one may utter a word with innocuous intent, only to have it interpreted as “fighting words.”

That would be our crossword puzzle conundrum.

I would suggest — albeit somewhat hesitantly — that puzzle creators ought to steer clear of most of the words on the list above. We’re probably all good with crackerdike (but not its alternate spelling, dyke), frog, guinea, nip, Oreo, slant, slope, spade, spook, teapot, and wasp.

(Crossword convention dictates that the words be depicted in all capital letters, which has the effect of leveling the playing field. But I didn’t do it here because I DON’T WANT TO BE MISTAKEN FOR A SHOUTER.)

In closing, I’ll cite linguistics expert Bugs Bunny, who famously said, “I dare ya to step over this line….”

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About Tom Finkel

Skeptical about nearly everything but my rights and responsibilities. Former editor-in-chief at Village Voice, Riverfront Times, & City Pages. Before that, Miami New Times. Interested human being.

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