An 11-Letter Word for Unnecessary Outrage: “Nontroversy”

Check out this Jezebel piece and tell me what comes to mind. Is a fair conclusion from this really that the New York Times Crossword is an organization run by old, white men who want to put feminists in their place, or might this all just be a misunderstanding, a click-bait article written by an outsider to the community who hasn’t done their research?

First off, there’s the tone of Jezebel’s piece, which not only exaggerates and takes what I believe is undue offense to a potentially tone-deaf clue, but insults the entire cruciverbalist community in the process:

“The New York Times crossword puzzle is a hallowed institution of yesteryear, one that is useful in distinguishing normal people from people good at one very specific, generally useless skill.”

It then makes quite a few assumptions about the community being mostly white and male, based almost entirely on a single crossword blog that, I guess for Jezebel, counts as research and a valid assertion of the “crossword community” that is supposedly in an “outrage tornado.” (Check out the Wordplay blog or Diary of a Crossword Fiend. We’re not all that upset, and we’re able to civilly discuss the usage in question.)

And then finally, there’s the world-ending clue itself: “Exasperated comment from a feminist” [3], which clues MEN.

Now look: it’s true that a feminist doesn’t have to be the one saying it. But you also can’t say “woman” because that’d be too close to what you’re cluing. (I’m also not sure that would satisfy the people who are exasperated with this sort of old-fashioned clue.) And it’s also not entirely incorrect that a feminist might not–in the way of crossword shorthand–say “MEN.” Perhaps the editors are guilty of giving way to stereotype here, in that they’re triggering a mental pathway that readers have built up over the years. And while it’s true that feminists are not misandrists–which this clue doesn’t really imply, not getting far beyond sitcom-y roots, or, worse, Cathy–and that they’re fighting systemic inequality, you can’t really deny that the feminist movement isn’t equally responsible for inaccurate shorthand, such as MANSPREADING–which, for what it’s worth, did not provoke a controversy in Jezebel’s pages when it appeared in the New York Times crossword, though it’s just as offensive to quite a few people.

It’s not a particularly great clue, but is it really a particularly offensive one either? Isn’t the very way in which this complaint has been raised almost as offensive as the the thing being protested? Heck, look at the thing the article associates it with–a similar complaint lodged against the puzzle for using THUG as an answer for “Gangsta rap characters”–as if “Thug Life” isn’t an extensive Wikipedia entry in conjunction with that genre. You can’t even read that as the sort of unconscious condemnation of black youth that FOX newscasters create when they call out black rioters as gangsters and hoodlums and white ones as ‘out of control’ or ‘boisterous’ kids–we’re talking specifically about “gangsta” (note the slang) rap. The context matters too, then, for the use of MEN here. There’s no negative connotation to accompany “feminist”–the clue doesn’t read “Comment from an unnecessarily exasperated feminist” or “A feminist’s whiny complaint,” both of which are clues with actual opinions, bias, and offense.

But by all means, let’s jump on this constructor–a freshman student at college–during his NYT debut, and ignore all the positive, creative clever fill he came up with in favor of bashing the one clue that irritates you. At the very least, Jezebel and co., consider that there’s a better way to bring up what may actually be a valid critique, you know, without all the self-righteous snark and anger. Consider, too, what this feminist reading of a potentially innocent crossword clue boils down to: an exasperated complaint about MEN.

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