Clue: A Center of Knowledge, 15 Letters
This weekend I carved out a little time to do The New York Times crossword. I love puzzling over the clues, watching a quadrant emerge, and the satisfaction of finishing. As I sipped my coffee, I thought about how social life is a lot like a crossword puzzle.
Here is one clue from the July 28 puzzle: “What you might charge for a ride.” My mind cast about for a five-letter word. It couldn’t be TOKEN or TICKET. But then I remembered that puzzle masters love word play, and realized that “charge” has multiple meanings. The answer was TESLA—the name for Elon Musk’s electric car.
In life there are clues and answers, just like a crossword. You can stare at a puzzle and miss important hints as to how it works and, in social life, there far more hidden rules than explicit ones. Some see puzzles as easy, others see them as mysterious. Some go through life seeming to have figured it all out, while others are constantly, well, puzzled. (Check out this crossword master, putting together magic and crosswords in a TED Talk.)
Let’s talk about crosswords first. There are explicit rules to the average crossword: words go across and down, there are numbers, etc. But there are also hidden rules. For examples: The Monday New York Times crossword is the easiest, and they get harder each day until Saturday, while Sunday is midweek-level difficulty. If a clue is abbreviated, the answer is abbreviated as well; the tense of the clue is usually the tense of the answer (i.e., if a clue ends with an s, ed, or an ing then the answer might have that ending too), etc.
Practice also matters. The more crosswords you do, the more your mind is trained to ferret out the meanings of clues, but also, you begin to see the same words repeatedly. The USA Today crossword, for example, almost always has a word carried over from the previous day’s puzzle. There is also a swath of common words that puzzle makers use because they have a helpful amount of vowels: epee (clue: “a fencing sword”), ooze (clue: “too emit, slowly”), asea (clue: “adrift in water”), stye (clue: “an eyelid woe”), oreo (clue: “a cookie sandwich”).
But then there are other more hidden aspects to crosswords that you won’t find in The New York Times guide on “How to Solve Crossword Puzzles.” Although puzzle master Will Shortz says that the crossword is “not a test of intelligence,” it is definitely a test of cultural knowledge. Having a broad base of information makes a crossword easier (and potentially more enjoyable). There are lots of cultural references that might leave you asea. For example, I didn’t know “Actress Ana of ‘Devious Maids’” (answer: ORTIZ), although I could easily come up with “Cheryl of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’” (answer: HINES). Having lived in New York City, The New York Times crossword might cater to a particular puzzler like me as well (e.g., clue: “Part of many an NYC subway station wall,” answer: INLAIDTILE).
While a fair amount of answers can be found by anyone with Internet access (e.g., clue: “Onetime Korean statesman Syngman,” answer: RHEE), Google can only get a puzzler so far. Some clues (e.g., clue: “Ones who may dress down those dressing up?” answer: FASHIONPOLICE) just aren’t searchable (e.g., puns, plays on words like the ANTS/AIDE answer).
Pierre Bourdieu often used games or sports as a metaphor for social life, so if I were to think about how crosswords are a lot like life, he’s a good touchstone. For Bourdieu, an awareness of “rules of the game”—to the point of not really thinking about them—is what Bourdieu called illusio (see Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 117). Illusio allows the puzzler to not have to keep thinking through all the above rules with every new clue. They just know them. The better one’s sense or feel for the game—all the puns, the vowel-ridden words at their disposal—the better one is at playing it.
Bourdieu called a set of cultural knowledges cultural capital, and scholars have noticed that, increasingly, successful people who know a lot about a wide range of cultural are considered cultural omnivores (also: see this). Cultural omnivores might watch Devious Maids and Curb Your Enthusiasm, they might know the “River crossed in 1945’s Operation Plunder” (answer: RHINE) and the “Distributor of Penguin classics” (answer: DCCOMICS).
Crosswords and puzzling in general is quite an interesting field. Do they cater to only a small swath of the population who are cultural omnivores, or are crosswords crafted in this way so that they can cater to as wide an audience as possible, giving a good balance of clues to lots of different kinds of people? Or both?
So what lessons do we have here about social life? Well, a broad set of cultural knowledge can make one’s life easier. And I’m not just talking about trivia, like what some actor’s name is, but rather the ability to seem culturally and politically knowledgeable can help in work and school. And while there are some social rules that are explicit, like the explicit rules of a crossword puzzle, there are a great many more social rules that are hidden. Importantly, having illusio about social life—really, a particular sphere of social life and not social life in general—makes things that much easier for folks who know the rules of the game. Those who don’t have a feel for the game find things a whole lot harder.
Think about college. There is cultural knowledge that is important for collegiate success (e.g., effective written communication, basic foreign language, math). Some students have that knowledge already (largely from inherited cultural wealth and privilege), and others need to learn quickly.
That’s like the common words and bits of information that can be easily deployed in crosswords. Yes, one can look up basic information for a class—like a Korean politician’s name—but any college student quickly learns that there is a limit to what they can glean from Google. Scholars have amassed a vast library of studies proving that high schools, colleges, and universities cater to the cultural capital of some students more than others just like a crossword from The New York Times might cater to a New Yorker who would easily know what lines the walls of the city’s subways.
And then there are those rules of the game. There are the explicit rules to college (e.g., codes of conduct) that students are expected to abide by. Those are the down and across, tenses, and ranges of difficulty in crosswords. But then there are all these other hidden rules that some students understand and others do not (e.g., go visit your professor’s office hours, sit in the front of the class to pretend you are paying attention, how to take notes, how study in groups, etc.).
As with the crossword, knowledge about the game itself helps in school: there are all those websites with tricks to take any test that demonstrate that you can do better when you know not just the content but how to take a test. There’s the knowledge that is assessed in the test itself, and then there’s an awareness about testing as a form of assessment. As with the crossword, the more practice you have, the greater your feel for the game: confidence increases and familiarity with the rhythms and words and clues grows.
For Bourdieu, the game imposes itself but it also requires the players to constantly improvise as well. The next level, perhaps, is learning how to write your own game, make your own puzzle. Maybe that’s for students who enroll in Design Your Own Major programs (like the Bachelor’s Degree with Individualized Concentration we have at UMass Amherst)!