Clue: Upstate faculty member who creates crossword puzzles (4 letters)
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith. Today we're tackling crossword puzzles with Dr. Rachel Fabi. She's an assistant professor of bioethics and humanities at Upstate who teaches about ethics and public health policy. And she also writes for the "Wordplay" column in The New York Times. Thank you for making time for The Informed Patient, Dr. Fabi.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Hi, Amber. Thanks so much for having me.
Host Amber Smith: Now, last time I spoke with you, you told us all about your experience as a contestant on "Jeopardy!." Your episode aired in February 2019. And I love the photo that you have with ("Jeopardy!" host) Alex Trebek.
Do you think that people who are good at "Jeopardy!" have a natural ability to solve crossword puzzles?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah, I think that's an interesting question. I think there's a lot of crossover between trivia people and crossword people. And especially with "Jeopardy!," where you have to answer quickly, if you want to be a speed solver on a crossword puzzle, having those neurons firing quickly, it helps you in both, but I think there's also this belief about crossword puzzles that it's just one big trivia contest, which obviously "Jeopardy!" is one big trivia contest. but I think there's more to crosswords than just trivia. And so you don't have to be good at trivia to be good at crosswords in the same way that you need to be good at trivia to be good at "Jeopardy!."
Host Amber Smith: Yeah. Interesting. And you mentioned the timing of it, and I hadn't even thought of that with "Jeopardy!," you know, the speed counts, but people can spend hours, days on crosswords, right? So when did you start solving crossword puzzles?
It's interesting. It's actually very closely tied to my "Jeopardy!" story.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: So I started solving crossword puzzles when I was 13 or 14, and I was trying out for the "Jeopardy!" teen tournament, so I convinced myself that if I got really good at crossword puzzles, I would be good at "Jeopardy!." And that was how I was going to get on the teen tournament. It turned out that was wrong.
I didn't get on the teen tournament at all. But I did keep solving crossword puzzles, and then, 15 years later, I made it onto adult "Jeopardy!," and I'm still solving crossword puzzles, but as a 13 year old, it was not the best way to prepare.
Host Amber Smith: So what did you like about crossword puzzles? What attracted you to them?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Well, I started solving them regularly when I was preparing for "Jeopardy!," but even before that, my grandmother was very into crossword puzzles, so it was something that I could do with her, and then I think I stuck with it because I really liked the organization of a crossword puzzle.
It's a square. Usually there are 15 squares by 15 squares. It's a perfect grid, symmetrical in some way. And you're organizing concepts and ideas and names and wordplay and all of these things that you, you know, enjoy independent of putting them into a grid, right? If you like trivia, if you like wordplay or puns, all of those things can then be organized into this box.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: And I think (laughs),taking these really disparate ideas and putting them into a neat grid really appealed to me.
Host Amber Smith: Do you prefer paper, or do you like doing them online these days?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: I do both.I like doing it on the computer when I'm trying to solve very quickly. Um, if I'm in a competition, and there are lots of crossword competitions out there, I find that I go faster when I'm typing.
but there's something really luxurious and kind of fun about bringing a crossword puzzle like to an airport bar, you know, and sitting there with an actual piece of paper and a pencil and pondering the questions, the clues, the grid,more slowly. So it really depends on how quickly I'm trying to go.
Well, how did you begin constructing your own crossword puzzles?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah, so that's also tied to "Jeopardy!." That had been a goal of mine my entire life, was to make it onto that show. And then I had made it, and I was on the show and my episode was about to air, and I was trying to figure out, OK, what is the next like hugely nerdy thing I can do?
And so, as an almost lifelong solver of crossword puzzles, I decided that the next nerdy thing to do would be to get a puzzle in The New York Times. So that was sort of my next major goal. And so I'm on Twitter, and there's sort of a whole crossword subculture on Twitter, and I saw someone say, "Hey, we're looking for new constructors for this charity pack that we're putting together. If people donate to charity, they can get this pack and we want new people to help contribute to it. And if you don't know how to do it, we'll pair you up with a mentor who can teach you how to make crossword puzzles.
So I got paired with a really fabulous mentor who taught mehow to build a puzzle, and once I started, I was hooked, I loved it so much, and I haven't stopped. So in the last two years, I think I've made something like 150 puzzles, total.
Host Amber Smith: How long does it take to make a crossword puzzle? One that would go in USA Today or The New York Times? Is that an all-day project, or what's involved?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah, it really depends on how complicated the puzzle itself is. So if you're making for the USA Today, they're generally very straightforward themes, and they're all themed puzzles. There are also themeless puzzles that run in The New York Times, but in the USA Today, it's a simple theme,and so coming up with that theme set, the entries that sort of are the theme ones, can take a long time if you decide on a title or what we call a revealer, which is where it describes what the theme is, and it's embedded in the puzzle, sort of latch onto a title or a revealer, and then you have to brainstorm the entries that can go along with that theme, and if it's really complicated, that can take a while. Or if it's really simple, like for the USA Today, it might come to you very quickly. And then you lay them out in that 15 by 15 square, using software. I use a software called CrossFire, which is for Mac. There is also software called Crossword Compiler, which is for Windows.
And you start filling the grid around your theme entries. So the software suggests words that can go into different spaces based on the letter patterns and the blocks. And so it's a lot of iteration because you'll find you put something in that you think will go nicely with your theme entries. And as you start building off of the things that you've put in, you'll realize I don't really like the options that I have over in that corner now, and so you have to sort of undo it and it's, it's a very iterative process, so that can take anywhere from an hour, if it's a really easy grid, to I have some that I've been putting down, putting away, coming back to, trying again for almost a year at this point, and I'm still not satisfied with.
Host Amber Smith: Now these grids, the 15 by 15, they have to have symmetry? They have to be like a mirror image? Is that one of the rules?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: That's one of the sort of unwritten rules, maybe they're written somewhere, but, one of the unwritten rules of crossword puzzles is that they have to be symmetrical in some way. Now that's shifting; there are some puzzles, including the USA Today, that will take asymmetric puzzles.
I personally like the constraints that are imposed on a constructor when there is symmetry, but in general, the most common kind of symmetry in a crossword puzzle is rotational, which means if you took the grid, and you rotated it 180 degrees, upside down, the square pattern would be the same. But you also see some sort of mirror symmetry in some puzzles, and sometimes you'll even see diagonal symmetry, which is symmetrical across the diagonal axis.
Host Amber Smith: In the puzzles that you've constructed, do you ever get feedback or questions from people who are trying to answer it?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah. I sometimes mostly when I get his corrections (laughs) from overzealous solvers who say, "Oh, this minor detail about this thing that you put in this one clue was incorrect." I had a typo, that editors missed in a USA Today puzzle about a month ago; they had put, it was something about, an Olympic city for 1988, and they had changed it to 1998. So the actual answer was Seoul, but in 1998 it was Nagano, so I got a lot of emails from people saying you have the year wrong for the city.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's The Informed Patient podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith, talking with Dr. Rachel Fabi from Upstate's department of bioethics and humanities. We're talking about her side gig as a crossword puzzle constructor.
So I wanted to ask you about the characteristics of a good clue. What do you think? makes a really good clue?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Well, there are so many kinds of clues. So you'll have a fill-in-the-blank clue, which I think is usually one of the easier footholds for someone who's maybe new to solving crosswords is when you have a nice fill-in-the-blank, you know what goes in that blank, right? It's very easy, or, or you don't know, but you figure it out.
But my favorite kind of clue is a wordplay clue where there's some sort of pun going on, and in the rules of crossword puzzles, if you see a question mark at the end of the clue, that's the signal to the solver that this is a pun, there is some sort of wordplay happening here, and that's my favorite.
Host Amber Smith: How do you feel about people who look up the answers if they're struggling with something, looking back into your profession of ethics, is it ethical to consult a dictionary or Google?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Absolutely. There are no stakes when you're solving a crossword puzzle. It is your puzzle to solve however you want. And it's really between you and that grid how you get to the end.
Now if you're in a tournament or a competition, then we get into some ethical issues, but I actually think that looking stuff up when you get stuck is the best way to get better, becauseyou'll learn those crossword words that maybe you don't see in your daily life outside of the puzzle. And if you don't look them up, you'll never know what they mean and you'll never get better.
So I'm all in favor of people looking stuff up when they get stuck.
Host Amber Smith: How do you feel about rebuses? This is something I had never heard of before I prepared for this interview. And it's cramming extra letters into the same box? When did that become a practice?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Sure. I don't know when people started using rebuses, but I love them. I think that they are controversial. There are people who are very anti-rebus because they think, there should be one letter per box and that's the only way it should be done. But I think it just adds a little extra wrinkle of difficulty.
So an example of a rebus might be, if the theme is something like kitty corner, and then in the puzzle, you'll have the word "cat" crammed into one box. So you have the letters C, A and T, and then running through "cat" in both directions, across and down, you'll have some word that uses those letters in that order.
And so it's just been crammed into one little box. I just think they're fun. I think it makes it a little bit harder, but they don't deserve the hate that they get on the internet, for sure.
Host Amber Smith: Well, they're not used in all of the puzzles. I mean, I've never encountered them myself. It must be a unique thing. You're more likely to see a rebus on a Thursday, which is when The New York Times runs their tricky puzzles, and those are sort of the hardest themed puzzles that The New York Times offers. And so tricks like rebuses or something else funky happening in the grid you're most likely to find on a Thursday.
Well, let me ask you about an ongoing controversy about clues and crossword puzzles: Who are the puzzle makers making the puzzles for? Because I imagine that would influence the way you word the clues.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah, I think that that's right. So, crosswords is undergoing a bit of a revolution right now, historically I think that some editors have had in mind this idea of the typical solver who looks like your grandfather,or looks like,an older person who reads the encyclopedia for fun.
And I think that that is changing a lot. I think that younger people are getting interested in crossword puzzles, and I think a more diverse set of solvers is emerging, who isn't just like a stuffy New York Times paper-delivery subscription recipient. So I think crossword constructors are, it's sort of a feedback cycle where as constructors become more diverse and they put their worldview, the things they care about into crossword puzzles, solvers who resonate with those things are going to be drawn into this hobby as well. And so it's a feedback cycle where crosswords are just getting more and more diverse, solving more diverse solvers with more diverse constructors. And I think that that is a really good thing for the field, for this space, because it's more inclusive.
Host Amber Smith: So do you, when you sit down and start a puzzle, and I guess you kind of start with a theme, do you have a solver in mind or do you try to put together something that could appeal to (people in their) 20s to 70s, male, female, all, I mean, do you try to include everyone?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: I think it really depends on the venue where you would like to publish your crossword puzzle.
If you're writing a crossword puzzle for The New York Times, you want it to be as inclusive as possible. It should be accessible to anyone who has the skill of solving crossword puzzles or the desire to learn that skill. I think there's also sort of parallel to that this indie crossword scene, where there are fewer constraints on what people put in their grids.
You might get some more risqué content in indie crossword puzzles, or a very niche subculture could be packed into a crossword puzzle, and so, when you're trying to write something that is going to be published in a newspaper, you want it to be as wide reaching as possible, but there's a lot more room for creativity and putting yourself and your own voice into a puzzle and the things that you care about when you don't have editorial constraints to worry about.
Host Amber Smith: Now do you personally prefer sort of the unchanging knowledge questions, the history, literature, geography, or do you like pop culture, slang terms, things like that?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: I mean, give me all of it. I think it's all great.
I think a puzzle that doesn't have any pop culture or any slang, I think it feels stuffy to solve. It's not very exciting, but I think when a puzzle is all pop culture and all slang, that becomes inaccessible to other solvers. And so I think having a good blend of those things is the mark of a really skilled crossword constructor, because they can bridge, general knowledge and art history, geography withcolloquial phrases, maybe something that you would just say to your friend, and it's something that you encounter in real life. And I think that that's a lot more fun to solve.
Host Amber Smith: What about the use of commercial terms -- Pepsi, Samsung -- do you think it's okay to use names, words like that?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Totally. I mean, I don't think that you could write a crossword puzzle in 2021 without the word "Oreo." (laughs) I mean, you could, but if we couldn't use these commercial terms, these things that you encounter in your daily life,first of all, it would be really constricting because I mean, really, "Oreo" --- it's three vowels in a four-letter word; it's great.
But also it gets, you know, back to that accessibility and inclusivity issue. If the only things that we think are worthy of being in crossword puzzles are the things that you need a college degree to know about, that's really exclusive. And so brand names, like everyone goes to the grocery store, encounters these brands in their daily lives, and I think that makes it more inclusive as well.
Host Amber Smith: Are you OK with these obscure words that no one ever heard of or sees except in crossword puzzles?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: (laughs) In small doses, yeah, I think they're fine. The prototypical "crosswordese" in crossword constructing, we call it "crossword glue" because they're the words that hold together the rest of the interesting stuff in the puzzle, but sometimes you need a little glue to make it work, is the word "etui," which is spelled E T U I. Which is like an old-fashioned word for a needle case when you're doing needlepoint, and then you put your needle into your etui, and I've never in my life seen that word outside of a crossword puzzle, but it's kind of fun. Like it's interesting that there is a word for such a thing. So in small doses, I am here for the etuis.
Host Amber Smith: Now Will Shortz (The New York Times' crossword puzzle editor) has said that solving crosswords can make a person calmer and more focused. Do you find that to be true?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Definitely. Yeah. I like to start every day with at least one crossword puzzle. It sort of gets me into a working space. I don't know if that's true for everyone, but it's absolutely true for me.
Host Amber Smith: I'd like to get your advice for people who want to be good at crossword puzzles. What tricks can we try? Is there anything that'll help make us better?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: I mean, I would recommend checking out The New York Times' "Wordplay" column, especially with the early week puzzles. So the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday puzzles of The New York Times are the easiest ones of the week.
Those are also the columns that I write. I write the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday columns. And so the goal of my column is to help new solvers get better and to learn to recognize patterns and the sorts of things that you'll see in clues, like what does it mean when there's a question mark or what does it mean when a clue is in quotation marks? Or what does it mean if it ends with "comma-say-question mark" ( , say?). You know what I mean? These are all markers that if you don't do a lot of puzzles, and you're just getting into it, you'll have no idea what that means. Um, and so we write the column for new solvers, with the idea of being here's some tips, to get into it, aside from plugging my own column.
Other things that I recommend to new solvers is to just keep solving, because the more exposure you get to these things that are just in crossword puzzles, these clues to what's going on with the clues, the more you see that the more you'll understand it quickly. And the third thing I recommend is to solve the USA Today puzzle. It is written at the easiest level of all of the daily puzzles that are published in newspapers.
It is consistently really high quality. It is consistently really inclusive. The constructor slate is really diverse. I think 75% of their puzzles are written by women,compared with other puzzles out there where it's closer to 25%. They've been really intentional about shifting that, gender ratio,and so the USA Today is just my favorite beginner puzzle for new solvers to check out.
Host Amber Smith: Does, reading the dictionary help or is that sort of wasted time?
I mean, I've never done it. I don't see how that could really help you solve a crossword puzzle because you'd have to memorize the whole thing, and that seems unlikely to happen.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: So I think that time is probably better spent just solving and getting used to it and looking stuff up when you get stuck.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's The Informed Patient podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith, talking with Dr. Rachel Fabi from Upstate's department of bioethics and humanities. We're talking about her side gig as a crossword puzzle constructor.
Now you mentioned already what a question mark indicates in a clue, that it might be a pun or a play on words in some way. Can you tell us about some other common things that we might see in the clues?
You've probably written about them in the "Wordplay" column. What about ellipses -- ... (the "dot-dot-dot")?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah. So when you have ellipses in the middle of a clue, it means that the first part of the clue before the ellipses is the clue to the entry. And so is the second part, but they're not necessarily related to each other, so it's basically giving you two clues to the same entry. And the "dot-dot-dot" is sort of a way of saying, "Isn't it funny that these two things are related (laughs) or that they can both mean the same thing, even though they seem different?" Another common thing that you'll see in crossword clues is an indication that the answer is going to be in a non-English language.
And so sometimes that will be in the form of like at the end of the clue, we'll see (Fr), which just means "in French." right? But more commonly, in the clue itself, you'll have a word in that language, so you'll see a French word in this clue or a Spanish word or a German word in the clue. And that tells you that what you're looking for is going to be in French or Spanish or German or whatever language.
Host Amber Smith: If a question is written in past tense, what does that mean?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: That means that your answer is going to have to be in past tense, and if your clue is, a noun and it's plural, then your entry is going to be plural. So the part of speech has to match, the tense has to match, that sort of thing.
Host Amber Smith: Is there any way to tell from a clue whether the answer is one or more words? Because I know some answers are more than one word.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah,it usually won't tell you. There is a whole other type of crossword puzzle called cryptic crossword puzzles, which are very popular in the U.K. and are becoming more popular here, where they'll tell you the enumeration at the end of the clue.
So for instance, if it's a two-word entry that is nine letters long, it'll tell you "3, 6," right? And you know it's a two-word entry, where the first one is three (letters) and the second one is six, but we don't do that in American crosswords. So that's really a very British thing, and it's a totally different style of wordplay, too.
I'm very bad at cryptic crosswords.
Sometimes I'll see a question that's in quote marks, a clue that has quote marks around it. Is that trying to tell me something?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: It very much is. Yeah. So when you see a clue in quotations, it means that it is looking for an entry that is colloquial that means the same thing. So for instance, if the clue in quotes is "Hey, you," right, then the colloquial equivalent of that might beP-S-S-T, like, "Pssst!" you know, to get someone's attention. And so it just means what is something that you might say that means the same thing as the thing in quotes.
Host Amber Smith: What about brackets? If I see brackets in the question?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Brackets usually mean that, the clue is not necessarily a word or that the entry isn't necessarily a word, that you would say; it's more of an action. So for instance, in brackets, you might see, this is a clue that I wrote [more tuna, please].
And the answer was "meow," right? You're not speaking the word "meow," it's just something that means the same thing. Well, that's a hard one to explain. I'm not sure I explained that very well.
Host Amber Smith: But I get what the cat's meow is saying: "more tuna, please." I guess once someone starts into the crossword world, will this all kind of become more second nature?
It's a little intimidating.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: (laughs) Yeah. I really think so. I think if, getting deeper into crosswords more than just solving occasionally. It's something that you're interested in. again, starting with the USA Today is a good on-ramp. And I think people who really, this is meant for people who really love this will find from that entry point, a lot of different directions that you can go. You can, get involved with sort of crossword Twitter, and that's a whole space where you can connect with other constructors and other solvers. There are tournaments that you can do. Many of them have been online over the last few years, for obvious reasons. but I think, you have opportunities to compete and connect with other people, either online or in real life, and yeah, it's a really welcoming, kind, generous community. People are always looking to mentor new constructors and people who want to learn how to make puzzles. People are generous with their time and happy to help new constructors.
And so it's a fun space to sort of explore.
Host Amber Smith: As a constructor, how do you archive all of the crosswords that you've made in the past? And do you have rules for yourself about whether you will reuse certain clues?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: My archive system is a mess. It is just a series of folders on my desktop. But I actually don't pay very close attention to the clues that I've used. I mean, I think if I come up with a really clever clue for something, I'm going to remember it and not use it again, but I have a bit of puzzle amnesia; like I can solve the same puzzle a few weeks apart and not remember solving it. So keeping track of what I've used in puzzles for sort of more mundane clues is not something I'm concerned about, but if it was a really good one, I'll try not to reuse it.
Host Amber Smith: Now that you've been on "Jeopardy!," And you've had a New York Times crossword puzzle published, what's next? What's your next challenge?
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Oh, man. Well, I mean, here at Upstate, trying to get tenure, that's my next sort of professional challenge. And then in terms of nerdy stuff, I mean, writing the "Wordplay" column, getting invited to do that, was really a dream.
It's really fun. I love talking about crossword puzzles. Obviously, I could talk about them all day,and so having a platform to engage with solvers about this thing that I love has been really cool. And I'm going to keep doing that, keep writing for The Times. Um, I did audition for another game show recently.
I haven't heard back, but I think it went well. So I will keep you posted, and, and maybe keep doing some of that on the side as well. But in general, I'm pretty satisfied with the level of nerd that I have reached.
Host Amber Smith: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Rachel Fabi, PhD: Yeah. Thank you for the invitation. This was really fun.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Dr. Rachel Fabi. She's an assistant professor of bioethics and humanities at Upstate. The Informed Patient is a podcast covering health, science and medicine brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. I'm your host, Amber Smith, thanking you for listening.