Date: March 9, 2003
Byline: Will Shortz
What's in a Name? Five Letters or LessIn an interview in Newsweek in January, Norman Mailer revealed that he solves The New York Times crossword every day. "You have to understand," he explained, "this is how I comb my brain every morning."
He added that he is surprised his name doesn't appear in puzzles more often.
"I'm hurt that I'm never in one of them," he said in the article. "And I've got a last name with three vowels. You'd think I'd be hot cakes, but I'm not."
As the crossword editor for The Times and the director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which takes place Friday through Sunday in Stamford, I'm impressed with Mr. Mailer's puzzle savvy. He is right about the importance of vowels in crosswords. Among English writing as a whole, vowels compose about 38.5 percent of the letters, while in crosswords they're closer to half.
Crosswords use more vowels in part because they need more of the common elements of English in order for words to interlock easily.
Thus, the name MAILER, with three vowels out of six letters, would seem to be a good candidate for a crossword grid. Unfortunately, MAILER poses two stumbling blocks for a crossword constructor.
First, at six letters, it's too long. The great majority of crossword answers have five letters or fewer. A six-letter word doesn't slip in by accident the way that, say, AGEE, INGE, URIS or ODETS (other literary names) might. A puzzle maker would have to make a special point to put it in.
Secondly, the vowels of MAILER are in the wrong places. For words to interlock at a crossword's straight edges, of which there are many, puzzle makers need words with vowels at either or both ends. Interior vowels are not so useful.
This is the sort of fact of which hard-core crossword enthusiasts like the more than 500 who will attend the crossword championship are well aware. And they know their crossword celebrities, too.
By these I don't mean famous people (like Norman Mailer) who solve puzzles, but rather famous people whose names appear frequently in puzzles. For example, ELLA Fitzgerald, INGA Swenson, ESAI Morales, REBA McEntire and Thomas ARNE, all of whom appeared in last year's tournament. These are all famous people to be sure, but because the letters in their names are so useful to puzzle makers, they have become crossword cliches.
According to Bob Klahn, who maintains a massive electronic database of published puzzles, the most frequent person's name in crosswords is ELI. It appears in about 5.9 percent of all published crosswords. Fortunately, ELI can be clued in a variety of ways ("Actor Wallach," "Inventor Whitney," "Automaker Ransom __ Olds," etc.), so it doesn't get too stale.
ELI is closely followed by ALI, IRA, ARI, ENOS and ANNE. IRA is sometimes clued in terms of an Individual Retirement Account or the Irish Republican Army, but the others are always people's names.
Puzzle constructors are always watching for new, short, vowel-heavy names to become widely known, so they can be legitimately used in puzzles. For instance, ARI Fleischer, the White House press secretary, became a staple of puzzles almost overnight in early 2001, when he assumed his job. Lance ITO, who presided over the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, was wildly popular in puzzles for a while. Nowadays, though, you're more likely to see his last name clued in terms of Midori ITO, the figure skater.
NIA Vardalos, the star of the film "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," is just starting her run in crosswords, as is India.ARIE, the R&B singer who won a couple of Grammys two weeks ago. They will join favorites from older show business like UTA Hagen, UNA Merkel, ILONA Massey, ETTA James and NITA Naldi, who will live on in puzzles long after their fame in the outside world has dimmed.
Often I have wondered if the creators of TV's "The Simpsons" are crossword fans, because so many of the characters' names seem purposely crossword friendly. LISA Simpson, EDNA Krabappel, MOE Szyslak, NED Flanders and APU, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk it's almost too many to be a coincidence.
Sometimes real people on the cusp of celebrity send me publicity information about themselves, in the hope that I will include their names in the New York Times crossword. I always dispose of such letters as soon as they arrive, because I don't want to be influenced by them.
Susan Sheehan, a Pulitzer-winning writer, once jocularly complained to me that her husband, Neil Sheehan also a Pulitzer winner has appeared several times in the Times crossword, but so far her own name has not. I empathized with her, but pointed out that NEIL (at four letters) appears in crosswords far more often than SUSAN (five letters). Moreover, there are many more famous Susans than Neils, so she has more competition in the cluing department.
Jon AGEE, the children's author/illustrator, once thanked me for including his name in a Friday Times crossword. The Friday puzzle, however, is known as one of the harder puzzles of the week and often includes uncommon names. He joked that he would not be satisfied until his name appeared in a Monday puzzle, the easiest of the week, where every answer is supposed to be familiar to most solvers. Only then would he know that he had truly arrived.
By this standard, the ultimate recognition, I suppose, is when a crossword clue says "First name in mysteries" (for ERLE) or "First name in cosmetics" (ESTEE). Solvers are not only expected to get the answer, they're expected to know who is being referred to without any additional help.
As for Norman Mailer, he should get over his hurt feelings. On Sunday, Feb. 6, 2000, the clue for 97-Down was "'The Executioner's Song' author." Six letters. Answer: M-A-I-L-E-R. With a free plug for his book, too.