Welcome to my new occasionally updated blogging series, Fill That Must Die (FTMD). As you might guess, this will be a bit of snarky commentary about short crossword entries which, simply put, I think should never appear in standard puzzles again.
A few things before getting started. It’s true that virtually all American-style crosswords have an interlocking pattern that may require a couple of compromises in the short fill — a.k.a. crosswordese, which are short entries that you’re far more likely to encounter in a crossword than you will in the real world. It’s also true that a couple of obscure or small crappy answers here and there does not necessarily ruin a puzzle. Plus, some less-than-ideal short answers are better than others. Nevertheless, there are some entries which are so dreadful that editors should send manuscripts containing them back to the constructor for refill. This little series will be my attempt at identifying those entries and hopefully helping to convince constructors and editors to stop using them. I’m with Stan Newman when he writes in his publisher specifications for Newsday puzzles that “With careful grid patterning, crossword-constructing software and a comprehensive database, obscurities are not necessary as ‘filler’ words to complete a grid.”
The inaugural entries on the Devil Cross chopping block: ALER(S) and NLER(S), the abbreviated forms of American and National Leaguer(s) in Major League Baseball.
Baseball has always been a distant third behind football and basketball as my favorite sports, but I still follow ESPN religiously, and in all the years I’ve watched the MLB playoffs or watched ESPN highlights or read baseball articles on ESPN.com, I have never encountered ALER(S) or NLER(S) as terms. You won’t find them in that many news articles or books about baseball. For instance, just type in “NLER baseball” into a Google News search and you’ll come up with nothing, except for a small allexperts.com post about how a crossword solver didn’t know what NLER was. If you type in “NLER baseball” or “ALER baseball” without quotes into a Google Books search, you’ll get a small handful of baseball encyclopedias (maybe six published since 2002) which use these abbreviations no more than once or twice in each book. I don’t think I’ve even seen these terms on the ESPN crawl, which is designed specifically for short headlines, score updates, and abbreviations.
In other words, ALER(S) and NLER(S) aren’t even common terms in the places you’d expect them to be. Yet owing to their Scrabble-friendly combination of letters, they still show up fairly often in daily puzzles. Xwordinfo shows that since the start of 2013, ALER has been in the New York Times puzzle four times, NLER has been in it once, and even NLERS showed up twice last month. According to Matt Ginsberg’s clue database, since the beginning of 2013, the LA Times puzzle has used NLER 11 times, ALER 5 times, and NLERS twice. In the same time period, CrosSynergy has also used different iterations of these abbreviations, though thankfully only four times (twice for NLER and once each for ALER and NLERS). But that’s only since January 1, 2013. Compare the number of times that ALER(S)/NLER(S) have appeared in crosswords since 2002, when the first of those few baseball encyclopedias mentioned above came out, and the disparity between their use in daily puzzles and mainstream baseball writing is even larger:
Number of daily crossword puzzles using ALER(S)/NLER(S) since January 1, 2002*†
|New York Times||34||5||31||19|
|* Data obtained from Xwordinfo and Matt Ginsberg’s clue database at http://www.otsys.com/clue/. As of this blog post, Ginsberg’s database was last updated to include data through September 30, 2014.
† Data not available for Stan Newman’s daily Newsday puzzle.
This data is only for daily puzzles; weekly mainstream and alternative puzzles have used them, too. The point is, when a baseball-related puzzle entry shows up in daily crosswords 5-8 times more than it does in baseball almanacs, encyclopedias, and articles — and remember, there is a very small handful of baseball resources that have actually employed these terms even once — that’s a pretty good sign that it exists for no other purpose than as a crutch for puzzle constructors.
In addition, one of the weirder things I’ve noticed about ALER(S)/NLER(S) is that they seem to be a “post-Maleskan” invention. Those who have solved the New York Times crossword for more than 20 years or learned about its history through constructing puzzles are likely aware that Will Shortz’s predecessor, Eugene T. Maleska, notoriously edited his puzzles such that they eschewed popular brand names and frequently tested the solver’s knowledge of highly obscure facts. Neither ALER(S) nor NLER(S) as typically clued would fall under the category of arcana, per se, but while it’s not hard to find crossword entries from the Maleska era that are no longer in use today (like INEE, an arrow poison), it’s harder to find words that began during Will Shortz’s tenure and became crosswordese in their own right. ALER(S)/NLER(S) would seem to qualify in that category.
So now that I’ve targeted ALER(S)/NLER(S) for summary execution, is there anything that can save them? Believe it or not, yes — well, maybe. You show me a really famous person named ALER, and we’ll talk. With apologies to the professionally trained tenor John Aler or the 17th century Jesuit author of Gradus ad Parnassum Paul Aler, there isn’t anyone famous enough with that name to merit inclusion in a crossword right now. Maybe the romance novelist Rochelle Alers will reach that level of mainstream knowledge one day. But should there be, say, a chart-topping rock artist or a blockbuster movie director or (ironically) a National League MVP with a last name of ALER, then it’s welcome back to the club. Maybe it won’t be an enthusiastic welcome, but it would at least be legit. NLER….I doubt that one is salvageable. But who knows, maybe some new rapper in the year 2025 will take it up as a name and stylize it as ‘N LER.
Two final notes on this: first, a few weeks ago, some fellow puzzle colleagues and I had a spirited discussion on Facebook about whether other sports-related crossword terms like NFLER(S) and NBAER(S) should get the same treatment as ALER(S) and NLER(S). I’m of the opinion that puzzlemakers shouldn’t use them either, though according to Google News, they at least have a little bit of currency in sports headlines. So I’m leaving them out of this discussion for now.
Second, I’m aware that when I was trying to find evidence of ALER(S)/NLER(S) in books and news articles, Google only turned up results for books and articles that have been digitized in their database, so it is possible that there are more titles out there that have used these abbreviations. But if anything, that only underscores their real-world obscurity even more. If the only place you’re apt to encounter them is the rare, unlisted encyclopedia that you happen to stumble over at some random bookstore in the middle of Bumfuck, Pennsylvania — you know what, no. You probably won’t even find them there either.
So please, puzzle people. Let these abbreviations die. Thanks, love, and kisses.