Welcome to The Good Word
Join me on weekly deep dives into my favorite words and phrases from Atlantic crosswords.
Sign up for Caleb’s newsletter here.
I’ve been writing and editing crossword puzzles since I was a teenager, for publications ranging from BuzzFeed to The New York Times. I worked at the Oxford English Dictionary for three summers. Placed in a few spelling bees here and there. I promise I’m not sharing this to bait you into going back in time and bullying me. It may come as no surprise that I love the English language very much. And now I’ll be proselytizing my love weekly with this newsletter, taking one answer from the previous week of Atlantic crossword puzzles and unpacking what makes it so fascinating to me.
At its best, a crossword puzzle is a snapshot of language as it’s currently being used—a linguistic freeze-frame of what people are talking about and how they’re talking about it.
Of course, in the real world, people don’t go around saying “oreo” or “ere” quite as often as they do within the puzzle grid. But as anyone who has tried to make a crossword can attest, you gotta glue the good stuff together with something, and to me, oreo is common enough, especially in Double Stuft, frozen, or milk-dipped form (but not those new novelty flavors, like cheesecake or whatever). But that’s a whole other story.
The point is: People who make puzzles call words like oreo and ere “fill”—the stuff you use to glue together the cool answers—the words or phrases you, as a constructor, have always wanted to see in a puzzle for some reason. These Cool Answers, we crossword constructors call a “seed entry,” or just “seed.”
So every week I’ll rant about a seed: what it means, where it comes from, how it got here … whatever drew me to enshrine this bit of language in the grid. Despite my chichi credentials, I am no language expert. Dial your expectations back from Expert to Fanboy. This will be more love letter than term paper. That means if I’m wrong about something, which I’m sure I will be, you can’t get mad, because … I just said so. But I do encourage you to write to me and explain why I’m wrong and/or stupid (and challenge you to do it with the fewest expletives possible). That way, I learn something new, and the situation doesn’t boil over into violence. Everyone wins.
I expect the subject matter to be as elastic as the contents of the puzzles themselves, but I do have certain proclivities when it comes to filling a grid that I imagine will dominate the discourse. If the internet has given us anything besides brain disease, it’s the ability to communicate in more ways than ever, and with a record of that communication. I love watching language evolve, and I love the crossword’s ability to capture that evolution on a small scale. Since the crossword is so ephemeral (The Atlantic’s puzzle gets bigger and more difficult every weekday), I can use it to respond to the fascinating, ever-fluctuating lexicon of virtual communication. When I worked at the OED, part of my job was reading through new publications and highlighting new words and phrases, and new usages of old words and phrases. I imagine this newsletter will mostly hover around that theme.
Finally: I will also probably write here and there about the process of making a crossword puzzle, which will be convenient for the dozens of you who have dreamed of making your own. The even better news is that the Atlantic Sunday puzzle is sourced from freelance contributors. Anyone with an idea for a puzzle can submit it, and I love working with first-time constructors. If you have any specific questions about how to make a puzzle, I’d be happy to address those as well. Who knows? Stick with me and you, too, could see your name immortalized in the bright, shiny pixels of the Atlantic crossword byline!
In the meantime, look out for The Good Word every Monday morning, timed perfectly to be the icing on the cruciverbal cake after you finish the previous week of puzzles.