How could two crossword constructors come up with puzzles that are almost exactly alike?

The art of play.
Nov. 27 2009 7:35 AM

It Themes Somehow Familiar

How could two crossword constructors come up with puzzles that are almost exactly alike?

Crossword. Click image to expand.
Plagiarism or coincidence?

Last month, I published a crossword on my Web site with a spooky theme —phrases with the word RAVEN embedded inside. The five theme entries: BRAVE NEW WORLD, INTRAVENOUS DRIP, CONTRAVENE, COBRA VENOM, and VENTNOR AVENUE (that's the Monopoly property). I felt pleased with my Edgar Allan Poe tribute—a clever theme well-executed.

I soon learned that I wasn't as clever as I thought. Over the next couple of days, I started getting e-mails from solvers telling me that my theme had been done before. In July of this year, at the National Puzzlers' League convention in Baltimore (which I didn't attend), crossword legend Mike Shenk had written—in honor of the host city—a puzzle with the same theme. His five theme entries:BRAVE NEW WORLD (!), INTRAVENOUS DRIP (!!), CONTRAVENE (!!!), COBRA VENOM (!!!!), and ST. CLAIR AVENUE (a major Toronto thoroughfare). Even more strikingly, Shenk placed each of those five entries in the exact same place that I had and used a very similar black-square pattern, to boot.

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(Spoiler Alert: If you'd like to solve one or both of these puzzles before seeing the complete solved grids below, you should stop reading here. Here's a JPEG of my puzzle, and here's a PDF of Mike Shenk's. Fyi, it's not necessary to solve the puzzles to read the rest of this piece.)

First, a few words in my defense: I didn't know about Mike Shenk's puzzle before I drew up my own, and if I had seen Shenk's raven crossword, I would've scrapped my theme before I began. Just as in journalism or literature, plagiarism is reviled in the crossword world. The community of Americans who write crosswords for major publications is tiny, perhaps 300 people, and most of us know one another. Someone who ripped off themes from other writers would not be able to get away with it for long. Sure, you might get away with "borrowing" a few clever clues from another cruciverbalist—tough to detect, and largely unavoidable anyway. But entire themes? That'd get you busted.

While plagiarism is virtually unheard of in the crossword community, my raven puzzle isn't an isolated case—crossword constructors duplicate one another's themes and grids all the time. The all-time most overused theme might be this list of breakfast foods each beginning with a European adjectival: ENGLISH MUFFIN, FRENCH TOAST, DANISH PASTRY, and SPANISH OMELET. (These puzzles are invariably titled "Continental Breakfast.") Another one that I'd rather lose an eye than see again: ERNEST HEMINGWAY, THE SUN ALSO RISES, and A FAREWELL TO ARMS, all conveniently 15 letters long.

Rather than a case of crossword hackery, I'd prefer to think of my unconscious replication of Mike Shenk's theme as a case of great minds thinking alike. To understand why this might happen, let's compare the solved grid of my puzzle and Shenk's puzzle.

My crossword:

crossword.

Shenk's crossword:

crossword.

As you can see, the theme entries and black square patterns are very similar. A solver looking at both puzzles could be forgiven for thinking I'd simply copied Shenk's grid wholesale. In reality, there are a bunch of reasons why two different crosswords could come out looking the same. The answers to the following four questions should help explain why.

Why was the theme exactly alike? There are perhaps two-dozen types of crossword themes, and puzzlers like me have done them all repeatedly. One popular example is adding or subtracting a letter to well-known phrases to get humorous new nonsense phrases. (A puzzle titled "C-Minus" might include the entries ORLANDO MAGI and ASH FOR CLUNKERS.) Embedding a word (like RAVEN) in longer entries is another popular convention. Since we're all essentially hunting the same wordplay quarry, it makes sense that two crossword constructors would hit upon the same bright idea. Unfortunately, Shenk beat me to the punch on this one.

Why were the theme entries almost exactly the same? Within those couple of dozen theme types, constructors look for specific criteria when selecting their theme words. This leads into a finer point of crossword design: When embedding a keyword in longer entries, it's considered elegant to break up that word as many different ways as possible.

For instance, let's say you wanted to embed USA in a bunch of longer entries. It'd be perfectly acceptable to go with MARCUS ALLEN, TITUS ANDRONICUS, and CAMPUS ACTIVISTS. That would be a little boring, though, since USA is split the same way (US/A) each time. I'd prefer this set: MARCUS ALLEN, SAY YOU SAY ME (the Oscar-winning Lionel Richie song), and SUSAN SONTAG. This splits the keyword three different ways—US/A, U/SA, and USA fully embedded in a longer word.

In the case of the RAVEN puzzles, Mike Shenk and I were both looking for lots of keyword-splitting variation. We each found four different splits: RAVE/N (BRAVE NEW WORLD), RAVEN (CONTRAVENE, INTRAVENOUS DRIP), RA/VEN (COBRA VENOM),andR/AVEN (VENTNOR/ST. CLAIR AVENUE).

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