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VOL. 127 | NO. 150 | Thursday, August 2, 2012

Vic Fleming

Spare Moments of Litzing

By Vic Fleming

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Of late, in my spare time, I’ve been “litzing” old crossword puzzles. It’s been quite the educational experience!

See, I got this email from David Steinberg captioned “Help building database of pre-Shortzian NYT crosswords.” And in this email, David wrote,

“I am working on building a digitized, fully analyzable database of New York Times crossword puzzles published from February 15, 1942, to November 20, 1993 (before Will Shortz took over as editor).” David said this project would be of historical and practical interest, and he elaborated a tad on that.

“The pre-Shortzian crosswords currently exist online,” David wrote, “in unanalyzable PDF files, which are sometimes difficult to find and read.” David’s been working with a couple of long-time crossword gurus, Barry Haldiman and Jim Horne, to secure copies of all these old puzzles.

To litz means to type each clue and entry into a crossword software program, from which the data so entered may then be exported as an AcrossLite file. AcrossLite is the most popular mode for online solving. Building such a database, David wrote, “is a massive, detail-intensive project, so I need help. If you’d be interested in becoming a volunteer litzer, please send me a private reply. Although there would be no pay, you would be providing an invaluable service to the crossword community.”

Did I mention that David has recently turned 15 years of age? And that he has had five New York Times crosswords published, with more accepted and in the queue? Anyhow, I signed up and have been litzing puzzles from 1953 this week. In 1953, Margaret Petherbridge Farrar was the crossword editor of the New York Times. Last week, I was working with puzzles from the early ’90s, when Eugene T. Maleska was the crossword editor.

I thought I’d share a few clues and answers from the old days of puzzles. This is stuff the likes of which created a stereotype and a stigma that crossword creators struggle with today. It is the type of stuff Shortz pretty much banned from the puzzle when he took office in 1993, as he advocated the notion that “everything covered by the Times should be in the puzzle” and that solvers would generally prefer to be spared obscure vocabulary that no one says, reads or otherwise has occasion to know.

The following are from 1953 puzzles:

Furniture decorated with inlaid shell, metal, etc. – BUHL

Bowls for babies – PORRINGERS

Of the back: Zool. – TERGAL

Caves: Poetic – GROTS

Pours out a potation – LIBATES

Nigerian native – ARO

Monkshood – ATIS

The following are from 1992 puzzles:

Saddletree strap – LATIGO

Ultimate end – TELOS

Rotten: Comb. Form – SAPRO

Eternity: Heb. – OLAM

Damned or detestable – ACCURST

Scottish dirk – SKEAN

Well, you get the picture if you are a modern-day crossword fan. Shortz revolutionized the cruciverbal world, emphasizing fresh, lively, in-the-language answers in puzzles, with catchy, clever and often humorous clues.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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