B A R E L Y B A D  W E B  S I T E  


VIII. Theme Answers

The New York Times crossword puzzle always contains a theme of some sort in the Monday through Wednesday editions, almost always on Thursdays, rarely on Fridays, and almost never on Saturdays.  The larger (21 by 21 versus 15 by 15) Sunday puzzle has not only a theme but a title that will always suggest that theme.  You should always pay attention to the theme.  In fact, you can't really say you've solved the puzzle till you've identified the theme or decided there isn't one.  The rest of this page consists of examples of themes.

(In addition, there are a few examples of tours de force sprinkled in, just so you can see how hard some constructors try.  It's these puzzles that you more casual solvers should admire more.)

Top of Crossword Themes page  The theme is George Washington, and the theme answers are CHERRY (cherry tree), WOODEN (wooden teeth), DELAWARE (Delaware River), VIRGINIA (home state), FATHER (of our country), and DOLLEY (Madison, his seamstress).

Top of Crossword Themes page  Some theme answers are quips and quotations. The quips can be made up by the author of the puzzle or they can be quotes from well-known people, and they purport to be amusing or insightful.  The various chunks of the answer snake through the puzzle, sometimes in diagonally symmetrical blocks and sometimes not, sometimes only in the Across answers and sometimes not.

Such quips and quotations usually make the puzzle more difficult to play, because you get only the one clue for what can be several dozen answer cells. The first clue will read something like "First part of quip," the next clues will read "Quip: Continued," and the last clue will read "Last part of quip."

Here's an answer from a Sunday puzzle: "If I had a nickel for every time I put a dollar in the bank I'd have 1/20 what I have now."

Now, to be honest with you, I don't really get what this particular one means, but the point is that you are given only one clue for what turns out to be, in this case, five separate answers occupying 68 cells.  (And yes, the author did require the player to figure out that two of the answers used the numeral 1, that two of the answers used the SLASH, that two of the answers used the numeral 2, and that two of the answers used the numeral 0.)

Top of Crossword Themes page  Arguably the best and certainly one of the most controversial NYT crossword puzzles appeared on Tuesday, November 5th, 1996, which was the day of the last U.S. presidential election that was not decided by the Supreme Court.  This puzzle is so special it requires you to take a detour to learn more about it.  Then come back here.

Top of Crossword Themes page  The theme of Isabel Walcott's NYT masterpiece of May 10, 1997, was so devious that the puzzle needed a special notation: "The answer to 53-Across contains a hint to entering the answers to 20-, 23-, 38-, 48-, and 53-Across itself."

Here's all you need to figure it out.  (Don't scroll down just yet.  Look at the answers for a sec.)

20-Across  Heavy-duty kitchen implement CHERKNE
23-Across  60's sitcom that had a whistled intro, with "The" YGRFITHSHOW
38-Across  What a "choosy mother" might pack for lunch JPEANUTTERSWICH
48-Across  Unsavory MTV cartoon duo BEAVISTHEAD
53-Across  Familiar five-word phrase that means "Excuses are unacceptable!" NOSSORS


















Give up?  OK, here's the deal.  The theme, as stated at 53-Across, is the phrase "No ifs ands or buts."


Note also that the three answers that include exactly two of the three special words spread them out with perfect symmetry, two of each.

This is one of the cleverest themes I can remember.

Top of Crossword Themes page  The theme clues and answers of the September 9, 1997, NYT puzzle by Matt Gaffney consisted of the following:

17-Across  What's the point of annoying Leno's sheep? WHYTEASEJAYSEWE
20-Across  60-Across, in other words LOOBGG
38-Across  Singers Starr and Kiki look at each other KAYSEYESSEEDEES
52-Across  38-Across, in other words KKIICDD
56-Across  17-Across, in other words YTTJJU
60-Across  Fashion magazine is indebted to a pop group ELLEOWESBEEGEES

Get it?  If you don't, take a moment to look it over for a while to see what the theme might be, because it's both good and better.

Even if you figured out that every answer consists of the sounds of the names of the individual letters (e.g., the sound of the letter B is "bee," the sound of the letter F is "eff," and so on), this puzzle is better than that.  Each answer is rendered twice, once in plain English and again using only letters.

This is brilliant primarily because of the intricate cleverness of the clues and answers but also because the constructor managed to fit them into the many strictures of a crossword grid.

Top of Crossword Themes page  The puzzle of January 22, 1998, by Patrick Jordan contained these four theme clues and answers:

53-Across  Three of these could complete the missing clues above PRESIDENTSNAMES

In case you don't want to think as hard as I did, I'll tell you the missing clues should be Grant, Ford and Pierce.

Top of Crossword Themes page  Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon used a cute theme in the puzzle of March 22, 1998.

Director Martin Scorcese's anagrammatic claim ISTRESSROMANCE
Jockey Eddie Arcaro's anagrammatic motto DORIDEARACE
Ulysses S. Grant's anagrammatic advice regarding hangovers TRYSUNGLASSES
Artist Piet Mondrian's anagrammatic epigram IPAINTMODERN
Kevin Costner's anagrammatic lament about his videos NEVERINSTOCK
Carmen Miranda's anagrammatic ballroom tip DANCEARMINARM
Len Deighton's anagrammatic avowal on writing IDOLENGTHEN
Poet Denise Leverton's anagrammatic urging DELVEINTOVERSE

Top of Crossword Themes page  Here are the theme clues and answers to the puzzle of February 3, 2000, by Thomas W. Schier.

1960's sci-fi series SPLOSTACE
Arrives ahead of schedule EGETSARLY
Start, as a chain of events MOTSETION
Jack Benny's theme song BLOLOVEOM
Write or call TOUCKEEPH


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here's an extra good example of a theme, by Manny Nosowsky.  Manny can be counted on to deliver at least 6.66% more than expected.  This ran on September 6, 1999, a mere Monday, which means the clues and answers were particularly easy.

xwd_manny_grid.gif (16420 bytes)
Copyright 1999 New York Times

In the third row is FIRST ROUND.
In the fourth row is FIRST BASE.

In the eight row is SECOND RATE.
In the ninth row is SECOND DOWN.

In the thirteenth row is THIRD RAIL.
In the fourteenth row is THIRD PRIZE.

Imagine how difficult it would be to try to get all of those crossing answers to work, and to keep it symmetrical.

Now consider how much more difficult it would be if you'd created a grid that required that every single one of the 39 DOWN answers in the entire puzzle intersect with at least one of your ACROSS theme answers.

But that's not all.

The constructor not only managed to work out all the answers above but also worked them into a perfectly appropriate full-length Down answer at 6-Down: FIRST SECOND THIRD.

Finally, this is quite a rare puzzle even if only for the reason that it is not square.   The width is the usual 15 cells, but the height is 16.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here's another one that violates the 15 X 15 rule.  The grid below, published on January 5, 2006, and written by Vic Fleming, does so for a special reason.

Copyright 2006 New York Times

Examine the two Across answers at the upper left and lower right, then the three theme answers at the fourth, eighth and twelfth rows.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here's another one by Manny Nosowsky, from the NYT puzzle of January 7, 2000, a Friday.  The low quality of this scan is all you need to see what makes this grid special.

xwd_manny_densegrid.gif (1976 bytes)
Copyright 2000 New York Times

It has two pairs of contiguous 15-letter answers as well as two other 15-letter answers crossing those first four.  As I explain elsewhere, for a constructor to take on any such grid is a challenge.  But that's not what's special about this one.

If you're a novice cruciverbalist you might not see it, but I assure you all experienced players recognized as soon as they saw it that this is an especially dense grid.  Of the total of 225 cells, only 21 are black, and that's special.

To use up more than 90% of the cells is so difficult, because it means so many of your answers must be so long.  Long words are, if you think about it, always more difficult to place in a grid.

If you think about it further you'll see that the fewer black cells there are, the lower will be the number of clues (what the constructors refer to as "word-count").  A low word-count (this one has only 66 clues) is an indication of a puzzle that was difficult to construct and will probably be difficult to play.  Yay.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Barely a year after Manny's 21-black grid (above) appeared, it got beat by a bit.

xwd_dipietro_20black.gif (3462 bytes)
Copyright 2001 New York Times

Joe DiPietro constructed a grid with only 20 black squares.  It ran in The New York Times of January 19, 2001.

So, all the praise I expressed above about Manny's grid goes 4.8% more for Joe's.

Surely 19 is next.


Top of Crossword Themes page  It took over four years, but the record re-belongs to Manny.

Copyright 2005 New York Times

This grid, which ran in the March 11, 2005, NYT, contains only 19 black squares and only 62 answers.

It also features two triple-stacks of 15 letters each.

Who knows when we'll see one with 18?


Top of Crossword Themes page  It took three and a half years, but the bar has been raised, er, lowered again.

Copyright 2008 New York Times

This grid in the August 22, 2008, edition of the NYT by Kevin G. Der has taken the record away from Manny again.  It has only 18 black squares.

As with Nosowsky's example immediately above, there are two triple stacks.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Four double stacks.

Copyright 2010 New York Times

The grid at left, by Joe Krozel (NYT of August 7, 2010), ties the record set two years before.  It too has only 18 black squares.

This is accomplished by placing two 15-letter answers one on top of the other at the top and two more at the bottom and two more down the left side and two more down the right side.

This grid is also quite unusual in that it is asymmetrical, at least in the typical sense of that term when referring to crossword grids, which is that the grid should be the same when it is rotated 180 degrees.  Look only at the three diagonals in the field and you'll see not one but two asymmetries.

Actually, this grid is symmetrical in a different sense.  If you rotate it forty-five degrees clockwise it is symmetrical on its new vertical axis, i.e., it displays left-right symmetry.  To see what I mean, cock your head 45 degrees counterclockwise, then mentally draw a line from the top of the resulting diamond to the bottom.  If you then fold on that line, the right half will match the left.  (For a deeper discussion of this topic, go here in case you haven't already.)

For a grid to have a record-tying number of blacks and be asymmetrical makes this a true standout.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Speaking of records, here's one that astonishes crossword constructors, by Frank Longo.  It ran on January 21, 2005.

Copyright 2005 New York Times

This grid contains only 52 answers, which is a record for NYT puzzles.  Frank Longo is known for extraordinary puzzles, and this is certainly one.

You can read how he built this puzzle HERE.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here's another tour de force, this time by slicing three triple stacks.

puz_martin_1201.gif (1,387 bytes)
Copyright 2000 New York Times


If you have Across Lite installed you can play this puzzle from HERE.  Choose "Ten Grain."

This is the grid of the NYT crossword on June 30th, 2000, constructed by Martin Ashwood-Smith.

It is most extraordinary.  Take a look at it for a while, then read on.

As you can see if you look close, there are three contiguous 15-letter answers at the top, one on top of another.  (That right there is tough.)

To match that there are, of course, three contiguous 15-letter answers at the bottom, one on top of another.  (So, even tougher.)

But there are also three contiguous 15-letter answers in the middle, one on top of the other.

Do you care to write the Down clues that fit such a grid?

Now, take another look and you'll see why this grid is not just extraordinary but, as I say, most extraordinary.

Running right down the middle is yet another 15-letter answer.

That's a remarkable ten full-length answers, consisting of 141 different cells.  Given that there are a total of 195 answer cells, those ten answers alone constitute over 72% of the entire puzzle!


Top of Crossword Themes page  This grid is most unusual, possibly unique.  Do you see why?

Copyright 2005 New York Times

There are only so many ways to construct a grid that follows the rules of a NYT puzzle and still have no black squares touching any others, even diagonally.

Patrick Merrell did it in this December 2, 2005, edition.  The three pertinent rules are (1) that all answers be three characters or longer, (2) that every white square appear in both an Across and a Down answer, and (3) that the grid be 180 degrees symmetrical.


Top of Crossword Themes page On July 28, 2007, an astonishing crossword puzzle named "Special Delivery" was published by Patrick Merrell at his blog.

The nature of this puzzle is such that it cannot be published as a regular crossword in the space available in regular newspapers, which is too bad, because it exemplifies the fierce nature of crossword constructors to bring us more, to do better, to get wild.

I declare this is the finest example of a fill-in-the-blank puzzle ever written since November 19, 1863.

Below is the crossword grid.  As you can see, it is a bit different.

Patrick Merrell's Web Site

First, you should go to Patrick Merrell's blog HERE and find and download the "Special Delivery" puzzle, then print it out and play it.  Even if you're a complete novice to crosswords, just keep banging away till you figure out the deal, at which point you'll realize you won't be needing the answer grid.

Update of March 10, 2011: You can now also go to Merrell's blog about this puzzle HERE.

Those of you familiar with acrostics might figure out the deal a bit earlier.  This is the quintessential melding of a crossword and an acrostic, perfectly executed.

Second, read the author's explanation from his blog of how he created the puzzle.

July 30, 2007 -- A few notes about the construction of "Special Delivery."

The concept: fill a crossword grid using each and every letter from a selected quote—an anagram of the quote, in effect.

The quote I chose had 143 letters, so I used a 13 square x 13 square grid (169 total squares) and symmetrically placed 26 black squares in it to arrive at the necessary 143 white squares.

After symmetrically positioning three themed answers in the grid, I set about filling the rest of the grid.  A list of individual letter totals from the quote was constantly checked.

A small supply of S's and L's was a bit of a problem.  After putting in the three themed entries, only three S's and two L's were left to use.

There was a fair amount of starting over and backtracking as I learned how to best manage the list of letters.  The one trade-off in making the puzzle was a larger number of "crosswordy" answers than I'd normally use.

In case you're curious, the last entry to go in the puzzle was 56-Down, which is also the most obscure answer in the puzzle . . . unless you happen to be into molecular genetics.  (The crossing answers and quote leave no doubt as to the correct answer, however.)

Third, now that you've played this puzzle -- you have, haven't you? -- try to imagine how difficult it must have been to construct.

Once he chose a quote, the author had only those exact 143 letters to work into the answer grid.  He couldn't trade a useless Q for a handy L or swap a K for an S.  He had that exact list of letters, and somehow they had to be fit into a crossword grid.  At first it would seem easy, with all those letters to choose from for the first several answers, but in pretty short order you're going to run out of the letters you want.  A few answers later you're going to realize that you've got a bunch of unpopular letters you absolutely have to cram into place in place of the letters you really want to use.

It's tough enough to create a half-decent crossword when you have all the letters of the alphabet available for use anywhere, but for a constructor to be able to create a rules-compliant 13 X 13 crossword that uses only a fixed set of 143 letters is so difficult that I wonder whether it has ever been done before.

But it's even harder than that, because 27 of those letters were used up by the three symmetrically placed theme answers, including one that's a full 13 letters in length.  The way it is all so gently forced to fit together continues to gast my flabber, and it should yours too.

The author of "Special Delivery" joins the the author of the Election Day crossword in my personal pantheon of crossword puzzledom, which now consists of two.

Top of Crossword Themes page Here are two similar ones from Manny Nosowsky.  In the February 16, 1996, puzzle immediately below the theme is simply the letter "Q."  Getting this to work with even a commonly used letter such as "E" or "S" would be tough enough, but getting it to work with such an uncommonly used letter as "Q" is remarkable, especially considering that most "Q's" have to be followed by a "U."  Notice how the grid is designed with a nine-cell diagonal of darks so the Qs can always start the answers.  Again, I recommend you try writing such a puzzle if you want to appreciate what an accomplishment this particular one was.

Copyright NYT 1996

Top of Crossword Themes page In that same vein, Dr. Nosowsky gave us a superb effort in the April Fool's Day NYT of 2000.  Here are the twelve theme clues and, as you'll see, the order doesn't matter.

Torment; Some socials; Golfers' needs; Musical notes; Rib; Sri Lankan exports; Flirt; Informal tops; Plumbing joints; Angers, with "off"; Certain crosses; Timeout signs.

Don't scroll down till you've looked at the clues to figure out the Theme.



























Copyright NYT 2000

It is extraordinary that such a puzzle could be constructed.

Forty-four answers in the grid above start or end with the letter "T."  When you add in the 12 answers that form the perimeter, that's an astonishing total of 56 theme answers out of a total of 74.

Assuming charitably that the typical puzzle contains as many as four theme answers and that the average number of answers is as few as 68, that means this grid contains twelve times more theme answers than average, which I think might be some kind of record. 

As you can imagine, if you can catch on to this theme early, you can fill in a lot of cells without even looking at the clues.  In this particular case, if you identify the theme after the first two clues, you can proceed to fill in another 40 letters, which I think also might be some kind of record.

Identifying the theme in a themed puzzle is satisfying and usually helpful.  The sooner you can do it the better, because once you've identified the theme you've got a major leg up on figuring out the other theme answers.  If before you even look at the clues you can identify the theme answers' strings of cells in the empty grid -- and you usually can because they're almost always the longest ones and they're almost always symmetrically placed -- you should strive to answer the clues that intersect one or two of them.

Top of Crossword Themes page The November 13, 2000, puzzle in the New York Times by Peter Gordon had a cute theme.

20-Across  One who looks up when someone yells "duck!"? BIRDWATCHER*
38-Across  Famous 52-Across REVERENDSPOONER
52-Across  20-Across, to 38-Across WORDBOTCHER

*I do have a complaint or two about how the first clue was punctuated.  First, I think there should have been a comma after "yells."  Second, I think "duck" should have been capitalized.  And I also figure if someone is yelling a word, it doesn't need an exclamation point.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Specialty theme.  Approximately every several weeks or so the theme will be really unusual, sometimes visually striking, and I look forward to these the most.

Rebus crossword.  For example, it might be that several individual cells are to be filled in with your best rendering of an eyeball, which represents the letters E-Y-E, and all those answers will contain those letters, such as GREYEST, CHEYENNE, and MONKEYED, which would show up in the answer grid as GR¤ST, CH¤NNE, and MONK¤D.  This is called a rebus puzzle, and the sooner you catch on to this rarely used convention the easier the puzzle will go.

Here's a good example of a visually striking specialty theme, by Bill Zais and Nancy Salomon, from the December 1, 1999, New York Times.

xwd_xmarks_grid.gif (4013 bytes)
Copyright 1999 New York Times

In the third row down from the top you'll see the answer to "Booty location," which is SPANISH MAIN.

Centered in the middle row of the puzzle is the answer to "X marks it," which is THE SPOT.

In the third row up from the bottom you'll see the answer to "What this puzzle is," which is TREASURE MAP.

So far so good, but nothing special, right?

But wait, that's not all.  There are two 15-character diagonal clues, and you can see the answers are DIAMONDS AND GOLD and EMERALDS AND JADE.

And, of course that's what makes this puzzle not just a treasure but a treasure map, because X marks the spot.  Amazing.

xwd_xmarks02a.gif (3,691bytes) 122902
Copyright 2002 New York Times

Here's another one using the same theme in a different way, from Patrick Merrell in the November 7, 2002, puzzle.

There are eight clues -- not just symmetrically placed but centered as well -- all relating to the theme of pirates searching for treasure where X marks the spot, and if you squint your eyes you'll see the X.

Update of January 2003: It took till now for someone to point out the obvious to oblivious me (thanks to the CRU at the NYT Crossword Forum) that there's yet another theme feature to this puzzle.  The centermost four letters are


If I missed this, how many other tidbits am I missing?  How many are you?

Top of Crossword Themes page  Elizabeth C. Gorski invariably entertains, and her Sunday, August 17, 2003, puzzle is a fine example.  The title is "All Keyed Up," and the theme is a telephone keypad.  Below are the twelve relevant answers in context.

                    I     L
              N     N     L
           INT1 PAGE2 LINE3 
              D     H     N
                    I     0
          PART4 TAKE5     6WEEK
              M           D
          GAME7     8EENS 9PINS
              U     A
              P     D     I
              *DATE 0FEET #SON
              L     E     S
              E     D

Top of Crossword Themes page  Here's another example of a specialty theme, co-construed by Nancy Salomon, partnering this time with Harvey Estes, in the NYT of December 16, 1999.

The clue for 3-Down is "Jungle swinger."  The clue for 7-Down is "With 11-Down, 3-Down's last words?"

T     S     T
A     O     H
R     M     E
Z     E     V
A     B     I
N     O     I
T     D     I
H     Y     I
E     G     I
A     R     I
P     E     I
E     A     I
M     S     I
A     E     N
N     D     E


Top of Crossword Themes page  The two theme answers in this March 16, 2000, NYT by Peter Gordon are SAYCHEESE and PUTONAHAPPYFACE.

So what, right?

But now squint your eyes and take another look at the grid, right.

xwd_smiley_grid.gif (2430 bytes)
    © 2000 New York Times


Top of Crossword Themes page  You don't need to squint anything to guess which letter starts every single one of the 74 clues in this January 1, 2004, puzzle by Richard Silvestri. xwd_letter_s.jpg (12,154 bytes) 02122004 175 x 162


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here the "S" (try squinting again) is made up of the white squares, in a NYT grid from Mark Diehl on April 10, 2004.

The theme is stated at 30-Across, where "Moniker suggested by the pattern of white squares in this grid" = THE MAN OF STEEL.

xwd_letter_s02.jpg (8,735 bytes) 05272004 175 x 174


Top of Crossword Themes page  See anything unusual about the letters in the grid below?  Forget about any meaning, just scan the letters.

Yes, you're right, in this superb effort by Patrick Berry from March 21, 2002, the only vowel is the letter "A."

Find another puzzle on the Internet or anywhere that uses only one vowel.

Also, this puzzle uses only 16 of the 26 letters of the alphabet, which sets it apart for that reason alone.



Top of Crossword Themes page  On Saturday, April Fool's Day, 2006, there ran a NYT crossword that epitomizes the cleverness constructors are capable of, in this case two of them, Kevan Choset and David Kwong.

DO NOT CLICK the answer grid below till you've taken a good look at it, especially the corners.  Note the three theme clues:

  • "What some of the letters in this puzzle seemingly have" = OPLACETOGO
  • "How you have to think to solve this puzzle" = OUTSIDETHEBOX
  • "Spills out, in the Bible" = OVERFLOWET

Now note also certain unlikely answers.

  • In the upper left we have "Ltrs. may be written in them" = TALS.
  • In the upper right we have "Row makers" = OES
  • In the lower left we have "Precollege" = ELH.
  • In the lower right we have "Language from which shawl and divan come" = FARS.

Without playing the puzzle you probably can't figure out the theme, and I suspect many who did play it the best they could couldn't figure it out either and gave up.  To understand the theme, go ahead and click the answer grid now.


The grid is mildly marred by the fact the upper right and lower left across answers contain an extra letter, but this is still an exceptional accomplishment in crossword puzzle construction, and we aren't likely to see any such thing again soon.


Top of Crossword Themes page  Here are two more examples of interesting grids, each forming a pleasant pattern of crosses.

© 2002 New York Times

If you think about it you'll realize that by imposing such a grid on himself the constructors made their jobs a lot more difficult.  We can compare how each handled the task.

The one on the left was done by Patrick Merrell, whose NYT crosswords never fail to excel.  It ran in the NYT on August 30, 2002, a Friday.  As you can see (try squinting your eyes), there are five symmetrically placed plus signs as well as two symmetrically placed minus signs.  Merrell took full advantage of this grid by including four special Across theme answers, the two at the very top and the two at the very bottom.

1-Across: "Fringe benefits" = PLUSSES
8-Across: "Cathedral sights" = CROSSES
63-Across: "They may be at the end of the line" = HYPHENS
64-Across: "Bad points" = MINUSES



The one on the right, from six days earlier (a NYT Saturday), is somewhat less inspired, and it has no theme to save it.  Although the grid is pretty compared to most, filling that grid seems to have gotten the better of the constructor.  Here the clues and answers are just a bit less fresh and approachable than is usual for NYT crosswords, and a few are worthy of comment.

40-Down's clue is "Suez Canal promoter," and the answer is LESSEPS.  Not exactly a household name, but not all that tough to get if you have the proper references.

But the "P" of that 40-Down intersects with a weak and obscure answer.  53-Across's clue is "Surpass," and the answer is OVERTOP.  Now, I admit I don't know whether "overtop" is a verb, but I don't care because I don't plan to use it.  Besides, I think more fun could have been had with the same letters broken up into the two-word answer "OVERT OP."  But then, I am not a crossword constructor.

Along those same lines, with regard to the diagonally opposite corner I have to mention the answer to 1-Across.  The clue is "Takes up the challenge," and the answer is HAS AT IT.  But those seven letters could be broken up into words in a more interesting way, for which a clue might be "Sucks."

Top of Crossword Themes page  The next specialty theme example (also by Patrick Merrell, in the October 24, 2002, NYT puzzle) is intricate, which means it was difficult to construct, which means it deserves your admiration.

The theme clue at 20-Across is "What's hidden in this puzzle" and the answer is strung symmetrically throughout the grid:


So, what does this mean?  It means that if you write the first letter of every one of the clues, in order, starting at 1-Across

merrell01.jpg (12,620 bytes) 120802

and ending at 60-Down, they spell out the following message:

"The good news is you've spotted the hidden message.  The bad news is that this is all it has to say."

Imagine how difficult it would be to get all this just right.

  • The theme answer is symmetrical.
  • The theme answer is perfectly written, i.e., it is accurate, error-free, on-point, and natural-sounding.
  • The initial W at 20-Across is perfectly in keeping with NYT clues of this sort, which means it is perfectly placed.  I have to wonder whether this was fortuitous.

    Update of August 20, 2003:
    The author says in an e-mail today, "BTW, I wrote the 20-Across clue in the MESSAGE IN THE CLUES puzzle before the hidden message. The 'W' that the clue started with was the catalyst for then writing the hidden message."
  • The resulting message is perfectly written, i.e., it is entirely idiomatic and grammatical.
  • The resulting message, in answer to the question asked at 20-Across, is cute.


There are less intricate examples of this theme here and here.

Top of Crossword Themes page  The NYT Sunday puzzle that ran on April 13, 2003, by Charles Deber, contains a theme that at first glance might seem unexceptional.

Here are the theme clues and their answers.

. . . and I am ___ TWENTY ONE BY TWENTY ONE
. . .  and I have ___ ONE HUNDRED FORTY WORDS
. . .  then I must be ___ TODAY'S CROSSWORD PUZZLE

This is anything but unexceptional.  It is jump-up-and-down extraordinary.

First, it does meet, of course, the criteria for the symmetrical placement of theme answers, in this case three full-length 21-character answers and two 20-character answers.

Second, the sentence is natural-sounding, not strained.

Third, and most important, the sentence is true.

Think how hard it must have been to get this sentence to be true, considering the specific numerical facts asserted in the first and fourth answers.

The first and fifth clues.  If you think about it, if there happened to be 73 dark squares instead of 72 as claimed then the answer to the first clue would have to change to SEVENTYTHREE, which is two characters longer than SEVENTYTWO, which immediately creates serious grid-layout problems for the constructor.

First, changing from SEVENTYTWO to SEVENTYTHREE means changing four of the Down answers that crossed the original answer, which might or might not be a big deal.

But second is that correcting the first answer from SEVENTYTWO to SEVENTYTHREE changes the answer!  If there really were 73 dark squares when the answer said SEVENTYTWO, changing the answer to SEVENTYTHREE takes up two more dark squares in the grid, which immediately changes the correct answer from the aforementioned SEVENTYTHREE to SEVENTYONE, which of course immediately changes the number of dark squares again, which immediately changes the correct answer again.  This becomes a crazy loop, where every correction in one answer and every grid-change immediately creates a problem somewhere else.

And, if you remember that diagonal symmetry must be maintained, it's 100% worse than all that, because every time the length of the answer to the first clue changes, the length of the answer to the symmetrically matched clue, the fifth one, must also change (which, of course, also means the answers to some of the crossing Down answers must also change), which means the correct answer to the first clue instantly changes yet again.

The fourth and second clues.  And while you're looping crazily around all the combinations of the first clue's answer, you also have to make sure the answer to the fourth clue changes to reflect the current total number of words (answers) in the puzzle.  Of course, any changes in the length of that answer will instantaneously change both the accuracy and the length of the answer to the first clue, which will instantaneously change the length of the fifth clue as well, of course, which will instantaneously change the answer to the first clue yet again.

And, of course, if you actualy do change the number of answers from 140 then that changes the length of the answer to the fourth clue, which immediately changes the length of the answer to the second clue, which, remember, must match the fourth answer symmetrically.  Both of these changes instantly change the answer to the first clue, which instantaneously changes the length of the fifth clue as well, which then changes the answer to the first clue, which then changes the . . .

And don't forget, every time you change an Across answer you have to change some of the Down answers, which can affect the Across answers that cross those new Down answers, which can affect the Down answers that cross those new Across answers, which might well change the answers to the first and fourth clues.  (I assume that it is because of the extraordinariness of this puzzle that the editor allowed the unusual answer at 99-Down, TZAR.  If a theme is chosen and executed well enough, we are all the better for it if a liberty is taken.)

I am the better for having studied this particular puzzle a bit, and I hope you are now too.

Top of Crossword Themes page  The title of the Sunday, December 28, 2003, NYT puzzle was "Headlines that Make You Go 'Huh?'"  The constructor is Seth A. Abel.  All of the theme clues begin with "Ambiguous headline about," and here are three humorous examples:

Ambiguous headline about school cooking lessons KIDSMAKETASTYSNACKS
Ambiguous headline about the Bush Cabinet ONEILLISFEDSECRETARY
Ambiguous headline about a police action COPSHELPDOGBITEVICTIM

Top of Crossword Themes page  Another first-rate example of a specialty theme is the Sunday NYT puzzle whose title was "Vicious Circle."  The theme answers were GEORGEKAUFMAN, FRANKLINDADAMS, ROBERTBENCHLEY, DOROTHYPARKER, ALEXANDER WOOLCOTT (in two answers), HAROLDROSS, and EDNAFERBER.

And if that's all there was to the theme then it still would have been fairly impressive to get pairs of those exact people's names to match up in length and to be diagonally symmetrical (and, of course, to be factually accurate).  Realize, once you've chosen an answer such as GEORGE KAUFMAN, you're pretty much stuck with it.  You can't just go around changing letters the way you can with a shorter answer.  For example, by changing only one letter the answer BAT can be changed to CAT, EAT, FAT, GAT, HAT, KAT, LAT, MAT, NAT, OAT, PAT, RAT, SAT, TAT, VAT, WAT, YAT; and BET, BIT, BLT, BOT, BUT; and BAA, BAD, BAG, BAH, BAM, BAN, BAR, BAS, and BAY.  BAT can be changed in a lot of ways in order to accommodate the perpendicular answers, but you can't just go around changing GEORGE KAUFMAN to GLORGE KAUFMAP and not expect someone to notice.

Anyway, the fun part of this puzzle, the unusual part, is at 54-Across.   The clue reads as follows:

Where the smart set sat [answer to be
entered in the appropriate manner]

The answer is ATTHEALGONQUINROUNDTABLE, but what's unusual about it is that that answer appears in a circle (well, OK a square, which is almost a perfectly unround circle).  The first part of that answer reads ATTHEAL, then you have to turn the corner downwards to fill in GONQUI, then you have to go left to fill in NROUND, and finally you go up with TABLE to complete the circle.

E     G
L     O
B     N
A     Q
T     U


Top of Crossword Themes page  James M. and James C. Jenista used a similar idea in a more fiendishly twisted way in the Saturday, January 3, 2004, NYT.

xwd_turn.jpg (32,247 bytes) 06122004 325 x 346

You can see four white cells with what looks like a blob that runs from the northwest corner to the southeast.  That blob, if you could read it, says TURN.

Until you get that figured out, if ever, this puzzle makes no sense.


For example, the clue at 17-Across is "Disappointing election results," and once you have worked out the Down answers you're left with the answer LOW_SRINGS.  If you make the turn, the answer turns out to be LowTURNouts.

As another example, also in the upper left corner of the grid, 4-Down's clue is "Discovery of Galileo," and the answer appears to be SA_OUTS.  As if you didn't get it already, the answer really is SaTURNsRings.  When was the last time -- whether in the field of crossword construction or any other -- that you came up with an idea this clever?



These rare puzzles -- the ones with a wickedly hidden theme that requires you to strain your imagination just to figure it out -- are by far the most enjoyable.  I'm sure there's some reason they don't appear any more often than they do, although as far as I'm concerned it's not much of one.  If you decide to take up the playing of crosswords and you stumble onto one that just doesn't seem to be making sense, it's probably one where you really have to think outside the box.  Have fun.































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