Try this: a seven-letter word, starts and ends with "A," the clue is "Neighbor of Georgia."
Did you say "ALABAMA"? I hope so. I hope you wrote it in non-erasable ink, in really big letters, and I hope you were saying to yourself, "Jeez, this crossword puzzle is way too easy" while you were writing it.
The correct answer, it turns out, is ARMENIA.
Stuff like this makes my day because I am a crossword puzzle constructor. I am paid to frustrate, annoy, mislead, and disinform, which means I have a promising career in electoral politics if the puzzle thing doesn't work out.
Work out it has, though, since inflicting these puzzles on the nation is so enjoyable, for both me and, I hope, the solvers. This year, my contribution to society will consist of writing 200-odd crosswords and editing about 150 more. They'll appear in Web sites, newspapers, and magazines like Slate, the Washington Post, and Billboard. If I do it right, there'll be a lot of people shouting cusswords at my crosswords, trying to erase non-erasable ink.
Today I'm editing a "Jonesin' " crossword, made by crossword master Matt Jones. Matt and I started Jonesin' last year, and the puzzles now appear nationwide in alternative newsweeklies, those free, superhip papers found in almost all U.S. cities.
The fun thing about Jonesin' crosswords is that, well, we can use foul language. This is slightly less juvenile than it sounds because crossword puzzle makers have long been oppressed by old ladies! I'm serious! For decades, the biggest crosswords in the country were edited by the "one little old lady rule": If a word's inclusion in a puzzle might cause Granny Q. Public to fire off an angry letter to the editor, it was excluded.
Needless to say, this precluded any words or clues even remotely edgy, and for entire generations, American crossword puzzles were pretty much a bowdlerized art form. BREAST was frowned upon, even when harmlessly referenced as a piece of chicken. Diseases were definitely taboo. CANCER, for example, was a no-no, even if clued as "Sign after Gemini"—and in many papers, the horoscope appeared right next to the crossword. AIDS became similarly verboten in the '80s, even if clued as "Lends assistance."
The notable exception was ASS, far too useful a word to be excluded altogether. It was always clued as "Nitwit" or "Stubborn animal" or something similarly vanilla. No irate letters to the editor from those clues, but not much fun, either.
Samizdat bawdiness, so to speak, did find its way into crosswords during this era of purity. One constructor famously snuck PENIS into a New York Times puzzle by cluing it "The ___ mightier than the sword." Another constructor, upset at a certain publishing company, concealed the words FUCK [name of publishing company] reading diagonally backward in the middle of a crossword grid—in one of that very company's magazines. And constructor Fred Piscop has become famous for his double-entendre clues. For example, Fred might clue GALAS as "Big balls" or BUTTER as "Pat on the buns." Crude, yes, but the clever calculus at play is the same as being stoned in public: The people who would find offense are precisely the people who won't notice in the first place.
For Jonesin' crosswords, we'd clue ASS as something like "It's shaken in nightclubs." That hardly offends our urban hipster solvers. We've done a marijuana-themed crossword, a Satan-themed puzzle, and a Ken Kesey in memoriam tribute when he passed away in November (title: "Beyond, My Ken").
We've got some good clues in this week's Jonesin'. Try these:
"Wild, Wild West" M_ _
"Creature that shades itself" C_ _ M _ _ _ _ _
"RV hookup" _ _ U
The answers are MAE, CHAMELEON, and STU, the last one being the letters between the letters R and V. Get it?
No, I don't have any friends. No, I didn't get laid in high school. Yes, I was president of the Chess Club, consul of the Latin Club, and a member of the It's Academic team. And yes, you'd better be careful when you pick up a pen to solve one of my puzzles. That pencil might well be your better bet.