Crossword roundup: the words of 2019

We have a tradition here of looking, with a crossworder’s eye, at various dictionaries’ Words of the Year.

Recently, we’ve found ourselves in a holding pattern. It goes like this: we find the lists clogged with tendentious terminology that has been coined in online subcultures, but that a user or lover of language may have been unaware of for the relevant 12 months.

And we’ve wondered whether the purpose of these lists has changed – from a selection of pieces of language that have broken through and that have achieved everyday usage … towards something perhaps a little needier.

So, let’s change, too. Let’s remember that crosswords tend to be not only more nimble than dictionaries at identifying new terms that a general reader is likely to know, but also more inherently more thoughtful. After all, a puzzle is spoiled if it turns out that many of its solvers couldn’t be expected to know one of its answers.

Our new mission, then: which dictionaries have chosen words of 2019 that the thoughtful, considerate compilers of crosswords think are fair to demand of a solver?

It might seem unfair to start with Australia’s admirable Macquarie; after all, like its biota, Aussie dialect is often self-contained (hence 2019’s hat-tip to “ngangkari”). But Macquarie is a staggeringly democratic institution, and so is its language; it was when “selfie” became Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 international word of the year that I learned that an antipodean firefighter is a “firie (or firey)”, but I must have forgotten, as those chummy, matey terms sounded unbearably odd to me in the context of recent wretched reporting.

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Stepping back: the non-Aussie entries in Macquarie’s 2019 list are not words you find – or would hope to find – in a puzzle. “Thicc” is enjoyable; that the “people’s choice” is “robodebt” is wretched and reasonable – but Macquarie’s new lexicon, as a whole, remains niche.

We just mentioned Oxford Dictionaries, the list of which has an environmental focus. I don’t think it’s just that it has convenient vowels, but one phrase appeared in crosswords as early as 2013, courtesy of this parish’s Pasquale while wearing his Sunday Times Mephisto garb …

11ac Detectives probing English runner’s offence against nature (7)
[ wordplay: abbrev. for (police) detectives, inside (‘probing’) abbrev. for ‘English’ & surname of athlete (‘runner’) ]
[ CID, inside E & COE ]
[ definition: offence against nature ]

… cluing ECOCIDE. Perhaps – maybe hopefully – the others, including “flight-shame”, will appear in 2020’s crosswords; likewise’s newer sense of “existential”.

The others? Merriam-Webster put “they” at the top of its list; this Guardian clue by Chifonie …

23d His or her model beneficiary (5)
[ wordplay: one-time car ‘model’ + synonym for ‘beneficiary’ ]
[ T + HEIR ]
[ definition: his or her ]

… does something perhaps similar. Unless you know better – I would vehemently love to know whether Chambers has stopped taking part due to policy, sagacity or economy – this leaves us contentedly with Collins’s list.

Here, we see some terms that setters consider familiar. Although, for “setters”, read “constructors” in the case of Evan Kalish’s US Universal crossword, where this clue …

54ac Convincing, algorithmically generated video … and a hint to the word concealed in 17-, 23-, 34- and 46-across

… alludes to the presence in entries CLOTHES HAMPER, SPANISH-AMERICAN and CHRISTMAS HAMS of the hidden word SHAM, thereby indicating Collins’ suggestion DEEP FAKES. And another Collins proposal appears in a recent quiptic – the Guardian’s stepping-stone for beginners and those in a hurry – in this clue from Matilda:

26ac Scruffy Uncle Fin, with hesitation, is a trendsetter (10)
[ wordplay: anagram (‘scruffy’) of UNCLEFIN, then (‘with’) utterance of hesitation ]
[ INFLUENC, then ER ]
[ definition: a trendsetter ]

INFLUENCER may not itself have been coined recently, but its newer sense is worth knowing about. Readers, what have I missed, misinterpreted or misunderstood?


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