What Makes a Word ‘Proper English’? (Published 2021) (2022)


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The internet and social media have sped up the ways slang terms are popularized among mainstream audiences.

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By Lam Thuy Vo


What Makes a Word ‘Proper English’? (Published 2021) (1)

When Kameron Austin Collins first saw the term “throw shade” clued in The New York Times crossword puzzle in 2017, he felt a rush of excitement.

“Be subtly and snarkily insulting,” the clue read. The New Yorker crossword constructor, who is Black and identifies as queer, couldn’t help but smile when he read it.

“I couldn’t believe that ‘throwing shade’ was in The New York Times crossword alongside all these Greek mythology references,” he said.

Collins watched his mother solve the crossword puzzle growing up. He began solving in college and became a constructor in the mid 2010s, publishing his first puzzle in 2014. He has published several puzzles in The New York Times since then.

For Collins, it was entries like “throwing shade” and music references that were familiar to him, like “Ghostface Killah,” that felt like an encouragement to enter the field and bring more of himself to his craft.

The internet and social media have increased the ways in which slang particular to specific groups — like “throwing shade” has been to the Black and Latinx queer communities for decades — are popularized among other people, and thus among crossword puzzlers.

Phrases like “throwing shade” may first spring up through documentaries like “Paris Is Burning” or shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but the popularization of a term happens when speakers use it repeatedly and among many people, not just with inner circles. This means we may also hear it used by our grandparents or by corporate marketing executives: people who are not part of the community that originated the term. The internet has made widespread popularization much easier.

In some ways, “internet speak” has brought about an interesting question: What constitutes “proper English?”

For many years, we have associated “proper English” with the written word — the language we read in books, articles and other formally published texts. Along the same lines, “proper English” is a standard applied by a few powerful entities — mostly those who have controlled the means of publication and distribution and come to agree on what met their criteria. Whether it’s the introduction of a word to the Oxford English Dictionary — often referred to as “OED” in crossword puzzles — or deciding on the use of certain verbiage in books, magazines and newspapers, there are a few folks who get to make decisions about what is and isn’t part of “proper English.”

But the English captured in pre-internet written texts never represented the language’s full complexity, leaving out things like slang used by cultural and ethnic groups, as well as regional and international variations of words. And the internet has forced more people to integrate what may have once been considered"improper English” into their day-to-day conversations.

Social media has allowed people to “capture a group language” and share it widely, causing words to spread like never before, said John Kelly, managing editor of Dictionary.com, one of the most visited online dictionaries in the world. He faces the question of what words to include on his site on a regular basis.

“The internet kind of gives us an opportunity to listen in on those conversations,” he said.

Proper words and who gets to coin them

This raises the question: When does an internet word enter the realm of puzzles?

Whenever we play a word-based game like the crossword puzzle or Spelling Bee, there’s always an assumption underlying our participation in each game — that we all agree on a lexicon of words that are acceptable in the universe of these games. In The New York Times, this is determined by the puzzle makers themselves.

For a puzzle constructor, deciding on a shared vocabulary requires careful balancing. Constructors must meet the standards of traditional publications and include more colloquial terms and cultural references that their audiences understand (or can at least deduce from reading a clue).

Puzzlers must consider the potential staying power of a word: Is it just a fad, or is it here to stay? They also have to think about how pervasive the word may be for readers. This means figuring out different ways to measure these qualities.

The tried-and-true option for testing a word’s popularity is to look them up in dictionaries and, for constructors like Joel Fagliano, who makes and edits puzzles for The Times, in newspaper and magazine archives. But now, editors might also take into consideration the number of online search results that a word returns or the occurrence of a term in Twitter word lists, several constructors told The New York Times.

“I think that back in the day, if a crossword editor wanted to decide if some word was puzzle-worthy, they could pull down a dictionary from the shelf and poll their co-workers,” the puzzle constructor Erik Agard wrote in an email interview. As an editor, in the internet age, I can simply Google it, or search it on Twitter or what have you, and get access to a much broader range of perspectives, which makes me less likely to gatekeep things that aren’t in my personal wheelhouse”

The internet also changed who has access to the puzzles. A wave of new puzzlers discovered crosswords through The New York Times Crossword app, which started digitizing the puzzle in 2014. With that, constructors had to take into consideration an audience that suddenly skewed much younger and more diverse, Fagliano said.

The internet has also brought about a more sophisticated conversation around what words constructors should use in puzzles. While Fagliano said that no words were automatically off the table, there has been a growing discourse about what words constructors should or should not use or how they should describe their meaning. In some cases, these debates have brought into question entries that constructors had used for decades.

For example, puzzlers recently brought up that the term “ogle” defines a form of harassment. The term has been used 438 times, according to XWord Info, a database of terms used in The New York Times crossword. Descriptions of the word have gone from “flirt,” in 1942, or “gaze amorously,” in 1994, to “It’s not a good look” or “eye lewdly,” in 2021.

Then there are ways in which puzzlers have clued terms that may not have been inclusive to marginalized communities. Fagliano noted that “wife,” for instance, was used primarily as a counterpart to the word “husband,” thus putting the idea of same-sex spouses outside of the norm of puzzles.

A more inclusive realm

With the internet popularizing words from certain cultures, puzzles have also arguably become more inclusive. This shift can help more people feel seen in crossword puzzles, but constructors also point out that popularization can blunt a linguistic cultural phenomenon. Constructors run the risk of misappropriation, changing a term’s original meaning without recognizing the history and cultures of those who coined it.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Anna Shechtman, a New Yorker puzzle constructor, said. The number of crosswords created “means that the sort of quantity and quality of inclusive representation is just, like, is maximized in a huge way. And that’s really exciting. On the other hand, it means that the opportunities by cultural appropriation are also that much more.”

A lot of the terms that enter the mainstream from slang are from Black communities that have often been neither represented nor employed by legacy institutions, Mr. Kelly of Dictionary.com said. As a result, there may be fewer diverse constructors who could help contextualize new slang in puzzles.

But one way to counteract an erasure of cultural history is to properly clue a term and pay homage to its origins. Multiple constructors told The New York Times that a carefully worded and thoughtful clue can help elevate a term while educating its audience. Groups like The Inkubator, Queer Qrosswords and the Crossword Puzzle Collaboration Directory are working toward ensuring that multiple voices are heard in the process of constructing crosswords.


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