Dictionary.com’s Exclusive Interview with Will Shortz: Part 1

will shortz, npr puzzlemaster, new york times crosswordWe had the opportunity to sit down with Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times’ Crossword Puzzle and NPR’s Puzzlemaster. Learn about the history of the crossword and how it’s intertwined with the dictionary.

Dictionary.com: You’ve said before that you’re a crossword traditionalist. What is a traditional crossword and who shaped crosswords as we know them?

Will Shortz: Well, I guess if I have a hero in the crossword world, it would be Margaret Farrer who was the co-editor of the first crossword puzzle book in 1924, and she was the Times’s first crossword editor, from 1942 to 69. The puzzles that she published had a classical elegance to them and I like crosswords that have a simplicity and a classical elegance to them as well. Of course, crosswords have moved beyond her time and I don’t think she would approve of everything that I’ve done with the Times’ crossword, but generally speaking, I think crosswords should be based on regular vocabulary that is professionally and elegantly interlocked, with lively themes and fresh, colorful clues. That’s the basic definition of a good crossword.

D: Other than the crossword, what’s your favorite kind of puzzle?

WS: I like just about any kind of puzzle. My favorite kind of puzzle overall would probably be a cryptic crossword, which is the British style. There are some American publications that publish crosswords in the British style but using American vocabulary. Other than that… I like Sudoku. I love KenKen, which the New York Times publishes. I like brain teasers. I like any kind of novelty word puzzle.

D: How does a British cryptic operate on a language level?

WS: In the British style, they have cryptic clues and this style of puzzle started almost when crosswords jumped the Atlantic in 1925. Crosswords were a craze here in 1924-25 and then they spread around the world. Our crosswords in those days were the definitions—the clues were strictly from the dictionary. A tree was always going to be clued as a “woody plant.” That was too ordinary and plain for the British mind, so they started introducing word play and twists. After a while, there was a whole body of rules that developed for British crosswords and in a nutshell, every cryptic clue contains two paths to the answer. It will contain a definition and it will contain some word play and the word play can involve an anagram, a homophone, dropping letters, word inside another word, and other kinds of word play. Over the years a whole body of cryptic rules for cryptic crosswords developed that most of the publications in Britain follow now. And you would think having two paths to the answer would make the clue easier than our style where we have just one path to the answer, but it’s not because you don’t know—when you read a cryptic clue—which part of the clue is the straight part and which part is the word play part. Also, in American crosswords, every letter in the grid has to appear in two answers across and down, that’s not true in Britain. You may have only about sixty percent of the letters cross. Generally speaking, you can never fill in an answer in a British crossword completely from the crossing words. In our puzzles, say you don’t know a certain word that’s five letters across, but if you get the five down answers, then you can solve the word without having ever heard of it. In British puzzles, that’s not true. There’s almost always at least one unchained letter.

will shortz, npr puzzlemaster, new york times crossword

Will Shortz (Photo by Anthony Loew)

D: I didn’t know that originally the clues came from the dictionary definition.

WS: Pretty much, yeah, if you go back to the 20s and 30s, they were pretty much from the dictionary.

D: I hate to say this, but that doesn’t sound like a very fun puzzle. It doesn’t sound as challenging as the level on which clues are at today.

WS: That’s right. The challenge came in a different way. It would be more of a test of your vocabulary. There was a lot more obscurity in those days. So if you were solving one of the quality crosswords at that time, there’s just a lot of words in there, you probably hadn’t heard of, or only very educated people would’ve heard of. That was what brought the challenge. It’s hard to imagine that those puzzles were that much fun in those days, and yet millions of people did them.

D: It seems like crosswords have become more accessible because they’re more about solving something, more about stretching your brain than about drawing on your knowledge.

WS: Crosswords will always do both of those things. They will always test your brain as well as test your knowledge, but the emphasis has shifted. In the old days, it was more of what you knew. If you go back to the 30s or 40s and even in the 50s, you would almost never see a clue that intentionally misled you. In fact, that was almost true up to when I started at the Times in 1993. You would almost never see a clue that deliberately tried to mislead. Now of course that’s part of the game. I try to—especially on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday puzzles—there will be many clues that intentionally mislead.


Do you ever have trouble with crosswords? Try our crossword solver here!


Will Shortz picks his favorite puzzles here.


Here’s the second half of our interview with Will Shortz – where he tells us about his favorite crossword words.

SCOTT AIRMAN SAVES LIFE WITH BONE MARROW DONATION. go to web site bone marrow donation

States News Service April 18, 2012 SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. — The following information was released by the U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command:

by Airman 1st Class Jake Eckhardt 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs Right now roughly 15,000 Americans are living with a life-threatening disease that can be cured by a donation of bone marrow. By the end of this year, more than 3,000 of those people will die waiting for a transplant.

One Airman from Scott Air Force Base recently had the chance to save one of those lives.

Staff Sgt. Casey Jensen, Airman Leadership School instructor, donated a part of his bone marrow March 29 at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C., to save a 28-year-old woman who was diagnosed with Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia.

“This was the second time I had gotten a phone call saying I could be someone’s bone marrow match. There are so many people out there.” he said. “I didn’t believe that I would get picked until the day I did.” After he received the phone call from the C.W. Bill Young Department of Defense Marrow Donor Program telling him he could potentially be the person to save this woman’s life, he had to be tested further to confirm that he was the best match.

Jensen flew to Washington D.C. for a day for blood-work, and a physical to make sure that he didn’t have any medical conditions that would prevent him from donating, and to make sure he was physically able to go through with the procedure.

All the tests came back indicating he was fit for the procedure and that they were 98.5 percent sure that he was a match for the patient. To find out if he was a match, he was compared to every registered bone marrow donor in the world. He then flew to Washington D.C. again to donate March 28 for the actual bone marrow extraction.

“I was extraordinarily nervous,” he said. “But as they were wheeling me in, I found out that I was ready. It was an overwhelming sense of joy. I was like ‘OK, let’s save a life.’” To extract the bone marrow, the doctors stuck two needles through his lower back into his pelvic bone and created 25 holes on each side about the size of a tip of a pen.

Two hours later he woke up in the recovery room and was taken to his room to rest.

“Within about an hour, I got restless,” he said. “I got up and started walking around. To my surprise, although it was a little stiff and a little weird, as long as I took my time, I could walk around and in fact the doctors encouraged it.” Aside from a slight discomfort, the instructor said it wasn’t very painful.

“I don’t really like medical stuff,” he said. “I can watch my blood be taken, but that’s about it. The fact is that it wasn’t that painful. It was just uncomfortable.” Before he went through the procedure, he did some independent research to make sure it’s what he wanted to do.

“I found out that this procedure, in no way, would help my body,” he said. “They would be taking out a part of my immune system and implanting it in another person. I also found out that 10 days before she would get the bone marrow that doctors would have to kill off her immune system. That’s 10 days that she would go without an immune system. go to website bone marrow donation

“Along with the dangers of going without an immune system for 10 days is the fact that her body might reject my bone marrow. Then her body would have no immune system for longer.” To go through with donating, Jensen had a lot of support from co-workers and family.

“I had so much support it was ridiculous,” he said. “All the other instructors here supported me and the commandant, Master Sgt. Matzek, even came up to me and said, ‘This is the greatest thing someone could ever do. You’re giving someone life.’ “The folks in Washington D.C. let my parents come too, so there was support everywhere I went.” Donating and potentially saving this woman’s life has influenced him to donate even more.

“They sent me a post-procedure questionnaire asking me, if needed, if I would be interested in donating blood, white blood cells, bone marrow or blood stem cells,” he said. “I sent the form back saying that I’m 100 percent willing to donate.” To register to donate, visit www.dodmarrow.org/index.htm.


  1. aryan -  July 13, 2015 - 5:25 am


  2. smsts courses -  September 3, 2012 - 2:01 pm

    I am very impressed with this post. I subscribe to this site and looking forward for another interesting piece of information. Thanks

  3. Patricia Reiner -  April 25, 2012 - 6:48 am

    I am trying to contact the photographer, Anthony Loew, and would appreciate an email or telephone number.

    Thank you, Patricia

  4. Simon Wilby Frauds -  April 24, 2012 - 11:28 am

    Smart mouth mobile has yet to let me down. I have not experienced any dropped calls. Thank goodness for the unlimited texting feature, between me and my kids my texting is endless. The apps are simple and easy to download. I am satisfied with my service, there were no hidden fees or surprises when I got bill. You get exactly what you pay for good service!!!
    I am a very talkative person by nature and I love to chitchat on my mobile the whole day. Due to this habit, I was lately receiving quite of nudging from my parents but all my worries were solved when I downloaded this magical app called Smart Mouth Mobile App.
    One adjective that defines Simon Wilby is smart. He is the CEO of Smart Power, Inc. He developed “The Smart One,” a revolutionary lithium battery powered by solar for cell phones and “The Smart Juice” which is energy with the same principle for lap tops.

  5. DC Fawcett -  April 24, 2012 - 6:51 am

    I absolutely LOVE crossword puzzles. This is a great post!

  6. Treasa Guerro -  March 12, 2012 - 6:15 am

    Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Very useful info particularly the last part :) I care for such info much. I was seeking this particular information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  7. Lia -  March 7, 2012 - 3:45 pm

    Hello, you used to write excellent, but the last several posts have been kinda boring… I miss your super writings. Past few posts are just a bit out of track! come on! >>> Sherrie @

  8. futon frames -  March 4, 2012 - 1:22 pm

    Thank you a lot for sharing this with all people you really realize what you’re speaking about! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally discuss with my website =). We could have a link alternate agreement between us

  9. telecom expense management -  March 4, 2012 - 5:25 am

    Hiya, I am really glad I have found this information. Nowadays bloggers publish only about gossips and internet and this is actually annoying. A good website with exciting content, this is what I need. Thank you for keeping this web site, I will be visiting it. Do you do newsletters? Can’t find it.

  10. mary torres -  February 11, 2012 - 5:59 pm

    @lisa how old r u?

  11. Lisa -  February 2, 2012 - 6:40 am

    I have been doing crosswords with my dad since I was a wee one, but only recently started with the cryptics. They are a challenge, but oh-so-satisfying when the right answers clicks.

  12. lolzoris-rex -  January 31, 2012 - 12:55 pm

    i used to do cross words then i took a book to the face

  13. Vicaari -  January 31, 2012 - 12:05 pm

    For some reason not that fond of Xword puzzles; love sudoku and other ones. However having read Archon’s all the benefits that he enjoys from Xwrd puzzles must try… yet again and focus on finishing. Thank you Archon, and Dictionary.com, well at least I learned this reading the interesting article.

  14. Al McCartan -  January 31, 2012 - 11:38 am

    Think of we poor Aussies, we’re burdened with both the US and British-style crossies, including cryptics. Love’em. I do miss, however, the ‘Dell Official and Dell Word Puzzles and Games’, my travelling companions for years. It’s great to see new puzzles evolving such as ‘Lexahedron.’

  15. Janice Cagan-Teuber -  January 31, 2012 - 9:09 am

    I love listening to Sunday’s Weekend Edition on NPR and to Will Shortz’ puzzles!!!!!

  16. smoothius -  January 31, 2012 - 7:31 am

    no mention of the format for a classic crossword? that would seem to be relevant to the topic. a classic crossword must make a mirror image of the blacked out squares on each half.

  17. king siva -  January 30, 2012 - 11:09 pm

    always helpful,,,,,,,,,, no doubt about it…………………….

  18. Amit -  January 30, 2012 - 8:46 pm

    Really interesting interview! I would like to know more about those clues, which Shortz says are somehow misleading. I hope, that he will elaborate in the next part of the interview.

  19. Archon -  January 30, 2012 - 6:38 pm

    I love crosswords. I do three a day. There’s hardly a day that I don’t learn something, a new word, a new usage, a bit of historical or geographical trivia. And I get to exercise my brain and intellect.

  20. RWB -  January 30, 2012 - 6:31 pm

    A person who creates a crossword is a cruciverbalist. The first crossword ran in the “New York World” newspaper Dec. 21, 1913, but was called word-cross.

  21. Sammy -  January 30, 2012 - 6:22 pm

    this is a cool article. I like crossword puzzles and its nice to learn about them.

  22. Vanessa -  January 30, 2012 - 4:59 pm

    “. . . it would Margaret Farrer . . .”

    Really? This IS a dictionary site . . . you’d think they’d pay attention to their grammar.

  23. Elise E. -  January 30, 2012 - 2:47 pm

    The British crossword sounds a lot like the kind they use for vocabulary study programs. I actually like them better :D

  24. arrem -  January 30, 2012 - 1:24 pm

    Almost never?

  25. Jon -  January 30, 2012 - 12:53 pm

    this is a cool article

  26. SHORTZ | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  January 30, 2012 - 9:24 am

    [...] Long and ‘Shortz’ of things: — We’re baffled by the Puzzle. — More often than not We speak the Mind [...]

  27. Parker -  January 30, 2012 - 8:43 am

    Thurs/Fri/Sat–now they take some doin’!

  28. shata -  January 30, 2012 - 6:47 am

    WoW this is a great artical!!!!(:

  29. JR -  January 30, 2012 - 6:23 am

    What, no comments yet??!
    Another interesting topic.

  30. andy brown -  January 30, 2012 - 6:10 am

    very interesting… i enjoy “the hot word” and its always intriguing to hear about people who live and work with words…

  31. Neil660 -  January 30, 2012 - 4:55 am

    Back in the day, crossword puzzles were even done in Latin in Britain.

  32. lulzsec -  January 30, 2012 - 4:41 am


  33. Jenny -  January 30, 2012 - 2:03 am

    this is amazing

  34. clivebeesley -  January 30, 2012 - 12:15 am

    perpertrating a terminalodgical inexactitude…..4 Across.


Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required):

Related articles

Back to Top