I really liked this Quartz retrospective of AOL as told via clues in The Times crossword yesterday, charting its course from “Prodigy competitor” in 1997 to “Huffington Post buyer” in 2012. Crossword clues are interesting (perhaps only slightly, I’ll concede) in that they need to be at once a challenge to decipher and clued in a way that’s solvable. “Prodigy competitor” as a clue for AOL wouldn’t work in 2012 because Prodigy doesn’t exist anymore. As such, The Times crossword acts as an interesting barometer of when something becomes common-enough knowledge to be used in a crossword.
Rex Parker’s crossword blog provided a behind-the-scenes view of this recently in dissecting a crossword he set for The Times (under his real name Michael Sharp*) with Caleb Madison. Of his clue for Ai Weiwei, Will Shortz, The Times crossword editor wrote, “I’m not crazy about the entry AI WEIWEI. He’s not so well-known yet, and his name is crazily spelled and not inferable,” despite a good amount of recent coverage on him in The Times. And AOL, though it was founded in 1991, didn’t make it into a Times crossword until 1997. So the Quartz piece got me wondering about other clues in the paper.
Apple was founded in 1976 but didn’t make it into a Times crossword until 1995, as an “I.B.M. rival,” and then frequently as a “Mac maker” and occasionally as “Beatles record label.” It was clued rather cleverly in 2001 as “Jobs site,” and again in 2007 as “Jobs creation.” Its first appearance as “iPhone maker” was in November 2007, almost a year after it was introduced at the Macworld conference. MICROSOFT, on the other hand, has yet to make its debut in the crossword, but that’s not surprising given its length and dearth of vowels. GOOGLE has had four appearances since 2005, seven years after it was founded. FACEBOOK popped up once in 2008, four years after it was founded, as “a Friendster alternative.” TWITTER has made two appearances (“service with many followers”) since 2010, three years after The Times joined Twitter. Instagram got in there for the first time last month. Groupon made it just once in September 2011. No love for Tumblr, Pandora (except as a box), Rdio, Spotify, or Pinterest, though.
The IPOD made its first appearance in 2004, three years after its release, and has been a regular, along with IMACS, NANO, and a few appearances of MINI as an iPod (“bigger than a Nano”). The IPHONE didn’t make an appearance until October 2008, and four more times since, once as “Droid’s rival” — although DROID has never been clued as a phone (the clue almost always refers to C-3PO or R2-D2). The IPAD has made it eight times since August 2010, four months after its release. The Zune has never appeared in the crossword, and Shuffle has never been clued as an iPod either, although a few clues have referred to it (“___ Shuffle”). The Surface has yet to make its debut. WINDOWSXP showed up once, six years after its release, and XBOX (gotta get those X’s wherever you can), DOS, and MSDOS have made regular appearances too.
JOBS has made many appearances as Apple’s founder since 2000, although most commonly as STEVE, usually clued as “Wozniak or Jobs,” and only once since he died, in a special crossword dedicated entirely to him, pictured at the top of this post (in which GIFS was also included for the third time). Nothing for Tim Cook yet. Bill GATES has made numerous appearances, usually as “Billionaire Bill.” But Ballmer? Nope. Jonathan Ive? Nope. Larry Page? Nope, many much better clues for that. No Sergey Brin either. Zuckerberg? Don’t be silly.
*Correction/Update: The term “setter” is a Britishism, while it’s “constructor” here in the U.S. Similarly, pseudonyms for setters is a British practice; the New York Times does not allow pseudonyms.