Apr 6, 2010

Interview with Paul Stynsberg

We often use crosswordese to describe words words found only in crosswords but seldom used in our daily conversation. Many solvers scorn upon the frequency of their appearances. But those words, with their vowel richness, is essential for constructors to cohere the whole grid. And new solvers simply can't complete a puzzle without mastering these words.

Paul Stynsberg, a fellow Minnesotan, makes the learning easier and entertaining. Every day he emailed subscribers a Word of the Day puzzle. Solve his little corner grid, and click on the answer, you'll find the definition, the common clues in crosswords, crossword puzzle frequency, frequency in English Language and a fascinating article on the word itself. He also provides a great picture to help solvers remember the word.

Paul has kept all the crosswordese he's covered in alphabetical order. You can also search the word archive by date and year. It's simple to sign up and it's free. Just email him at stynsberg@wiktel.com. I've benefited immensely from his daily email.

Also, don't miss his Clever Clue of the Month. Which is your favorite? I love "Camel dropping" for ASH. But truly they are all gems. Last month's "Made Unbearable?" for NEUTERED is simply spectacular.

When and how did you decide to dedicate a website specifically to crosswordese?

I love words, I love learning, and I enjoy solving crossword puzzles. Somewhere along the line I realized crossword puzzles had a language of their own: crosswordese. As I began thinking about doing some kind of site and creating a list of crosswordese, I realized there were many more crosswordese words than I had originally thought. At that point I realized a word-of-the-day site would be a good way to go - my thinking was that it could be one of the most useful word-of-the-day sites for the millions of people that work crossword puzzles each day because, inevitably, the word you see today will be in a puzzle within a few days or weeks. I created the site about 5 years ago.

Through creating the site I've learned hundreds of things I wouldn't have learned otherwise. For example:

ASTA: This is the dog in the Thin Man movies. Through learning about Asta I discovered a great movie series I otherwise might have never watched.

ULEE: The title character in the movie, Ulee's Gold. This is another fine movie I hadn't seen previously.

ENNUI: What a great word to use when 'boredom' just isn't enough!

And then there are the dozens of people I've learned about with crossword friendly names whose fame lives on through crosswords. A few examples: SAKI, AGEE, URIS, ODETS, INGE, NIN, ARP, KLEE, ERNST, ERTE, PEI, NAST.

I could go on and on...

What resources do you use to flesh out the crossword puzzle frequency/English language frequency stats & the appropriate summary on the Word of the Day?

Jimmy Wales is one of my heroes. His Wikipedia isn't perfect, but it's a treasure trove for projects like this. Most of my word-of-the-day summaries use information from Wikipedia articles.

Regarding crossword puzzle frequency - that's based on my own research. I solve puzzles with a number of friends at my work place (on breaks). Together, we solve a wide variety of puzzles (see my links page) - about 120 a month. From this I select a cross-section of puzzles to compile a list of crosswordese and calculate frequencies.

The English language frequency stats are retrieved using the elegant web-site, Wordcount.org This site presents 86,800 of the most frequently used English words and ranks them in order of commonness. The average native English speaker knows 12,000 - 20,000 words. Most crosswordese words are not part of the 40,000 most common words - in fact, many times I'm not able to provide stats because they're not even part of the site's 86,800 words.

I adore your Clever Clue of the Month. Can you explain to us your sifting process? Also, how do you ensure that those clues are original?

Coming up with the Clever Clue of the Month is a labor of love. I look at each of the puzzles our group solves each month searching for clever clues. I also receive a handful of clues each month from friends of the site. I then compare them with Matt Ginsburg's Clue Database. This program is updated every week or two with clues from most of the major crosswords. At least half of the clever clues are eliminated at this point because they've been used before. At the end of the month I send a preliminary list to a dozen veteran solvers and constructors to help me narrow the list down to six. I then put the list of six on the site and open it up to everyone to vote for their favorite.

Most of the time, my favorite clues don't win. For example, my favorite clue for March was: Load assistant? ....... EXLAX. It didn't even make it to the final six.

At this point, we're only looking at about half the puzzles out there each month, so this isn't as fair as it could be. I would welcome clever clue submissions from your readers.

Tell us a bit about your background. Do you construct crossword also?

I haven't begun constructing crossword puzzles yet. I'm quite sure I'll give it a shot in the future. I hope I don't put it off until retirement.

Regarding my background - I took a lot of math in college - I've discovered a lot of solvers and constructors have math backgrounds. I finally ended up with a degree in elementary education and taught 4th and 5th grade for three years. Since then I've worked at a window factory in northern Minnesota where I'm currently doing tech support.

What is a perfect puzzle to you? And what kind of themes/fill appeal to you & what are your groaners?

The first thing that comes to mind when you ask this question is the puzzle I highlighted as a Great Puzzle Alert in January. Xan Vongsathorn created an amazing rebus puzzle for the New York Times. It had an extermination theme where 'ant' was part of the answer. The same clue could be used for the answer if the 'ant' was 'exterminated'.

I'm a sucker for rebus puzzles. I love a theme that'll make me laugh out loud. And, of course, I like puzzles with a lot of clever and interesting clues. Also, I love puzzles that try new things, like the April Fool's NYT puzzle from a couple days ago where the wording of all the clues was out of order

My least favorite puzzles are those which are too easy. However, I've found a way to even enjoy them. There are a number of people I work with who are relatively new to crosswords. I let them start the easy ones. Then it's my job to finish them. They become much more challenging when there are a number of incorrect answers to sift through.

What puzzles do you solve every day? And who are your favorite constructors?

There is no single puzzle that I solve every day. I like to work on a wide variety of puzzles each month. I like to make sure I do at least one of every puzzle on my links list every month. Of course there are some puzzles I enjoy more than others. I lean heavily toward the NYT, WSJ, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Week, and Merl Reagle's Sunday Crosswords.

My favorite constructor/editor is Peter Gordon and my favorite puzzle is his weekly crossword in The Week. It's basically a news junkie's dream, and although I don't consider myself a news junkie, I love the fact that many of the clues are amazingly recent - many from news stories less than a week old! A couple other favorites are Merl Reagle and Brendan Emmitt Quigley.

Besides crossword, what else do you do for fun?


I enjoy spending time with my wife and kids. It looks like we'll be empty nesters in a couple months. I also enjoy walking/running my dog a few miles every day.

I teach a class on the Life of Christ. My work with crosswords pales in importance to this.

Like many other crossword solvers, I enjoy sudoku. I play backgammon almost every day. Other hobbies include badminton, scrabble, tennis, watching the Twins, and having my heart broken by the Vikings every year.

10 comments:

C. C. said...

Jeannie,
This interview was conducted with you in my mind. You and Paul typify Minnesota Nice.

Doug said...

Terrific interview, Paul. Is The Week puzzle available in Across Lite? I am a news junkie.

Clear Ayes said...

A very informative interview, as always, C.C. We are getting to know so many people from the crossword world up close and personal. It makes solving that much more enjoyable.

Thanks to Paul Stynsberg for the great links and interesting insights.

MJ said...

Great interview with so many interesting links. I've bookmarked the home page for future reference. I especially liked reading through the "Clever Clues of the Month."

Thank you, C.C. and Paul, for taking the time to share with us!

northberger said...

Thanks for the great questions and kind comments, CC. This was a lot of fun.

Doug, regarding The Week crossword - Peter Gordon assured me a number of months ago that there will eventually be an AcrossLite version of it. For now, if you have a PC, you need to right-click on the puzzle and select 'print picture'.

Jeannie said...

Paul, boy are you a busy man or what? You sure have your plate full as I just clicked on all of your links and now am afraid they will get no work out of me for the first part of my day. Just curious, what part of upper MN are you from? I am a transplant as I moved here in 1982, but you do the math...I guess I am more Minnesotan than Michigander now. Keep up the good work as it appears that your website is very informative. Who doesn't need to broaden their vocabulary?

C.C. you are sweet and you also typify MN nice. I will bake you a coconut cream pie someday...

northberger said...

Jeannie
I'm from Roseau, city of Polaris snowcats, great hockey, and yes, the big flood 8 years ago...

Anonymous said...

@Paul Stynsberg, I echo others' sentiments, a great interview. I hope to see your puzzle soon.

Annette said...

Paul, Great interview! Thank you for all the information and great links. Annette

C.C., thanks for conducting and sharing another interesting interview! Annette

Doug said...

Paul, Thank you for the help. I learned a great deal from your informative interview.