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NYT Crossword Puzzle's Use of Term 'Illegal' Causes Uproar

Posted: Feb 22, 2012

It’s not uncommon for crossword puzzles in The New York Times to have a theme. On Thursday last week, that theme — in a way that turned out to be both ironic and fitting — was ERROR.

At issue was a clue that caught many readers and close followers of the immigration debate by surprise. The clue, No. 54 Across, read: “One caught by border patrol.” The answer: ILLEGAL.

What’s no surprise is that many people took offense. The term, when used as a noun or as short-hand for “illegal immigrant,” has been a topic of discussion for some time, particularly because of its regular and often malicious use by anti-immigrant groups.

The response was first evident among some of fans who devotedly complete The New York Times crossword puzzle on a daily basis.

Michael Sharp, an English professor at Binghamton University who solves the puzzle daily and writes a popular blog about it, says the clue made him cringe. He says he solved the puzzle, as he usually does, in a matter of minutes, but had received emails from readers even before he had a chance to post the results. Then, once he posted the results, he got a stream of reactions.

“The question is not whether ILLEGAL as a noun has become common through usage. It has. But it’s an offensive noun…” wrote one reader who identified himself as Matthew G. “I am not easily offended. But calling people, rather than actions, “illegal” is inherently offensive,” he went on to say in a follow up comment.

Another reader, identified as Don Byas, wrote, “ILLEGAL !?!? Are Tom Tancredo and Lou Dobbs guest editing? Did a double-take as I was filling. ILLEGAL as a noun is in the language, but it’s dehumanizing.”

Sharp, who also writes crossword puzzles and has had some published in the Times, says he was dumbfounded.

“That’s what struck me, was how tone-deaf it was,” Sharp told Univision News. “There’s no question about the use of “illegal” as a substantive adjective, as a noun to describe a person… They know what it means… so I was really surprised it didn’t get changed to something else, to one of the infinite number of clues one might use for the word illegal.”

I was perplexed as well. On Friday, I contacted The New York Times’ communications department to seek clarification on the incident:

Dear Eileen Murphy,

I am writing a post about the NYT crossword puzzle for Univision’s English-language website. At issue is a clue in yesterday’s puzzle, No. 54 Across, which stated “One caught by border patrol” (answer: ILLEGAL). As you may know, the language around the immigration debate is somewhat of a sensitive issue, and many people would consider the term, when used a noun or short-hand for “illegal immigrant,” offensive. I know there has been discussion about using the term within the newspaper, and would like to know if someone is available to provide clarification about this particular incident for my piece.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. You can reach me at this email or by phone at (redacted).

Kind regards,

Juan E. Gastelum

Surprisingly, Will Shortz, who edits The New York Times’ crossword puzzle, emailed me himself on Monday morning (today), saying he was unaware of the charged nature of the term even though the newspaper’s former executive editor, Bill Keller, had addressed its use just months before after receiving a significant amount of backlash to an Op-Ed in which he used the term loosely.

Shortz email is as follows:

Dear Juan,

Thanks for your email regarding the clue for ILLEGAL (“One caught by border patrol”) in the Feb. 16 New York Times crossword.

At the time I wrote this clue (and yes, it was my clue), I had no idea that use of the word “illegal” in this sense (as a noun) was controversial. It’s in the dictionary. It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. There is nothing inherently pejorative about it.

Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of “illegal” as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation. I don’t want to offend people in the crossword. So I don’t expect to do this again. Fortunately, there are many other ways to clue the word ILLEGAL.

Thanks again for writing.

–Will Shortz
 Crossword Editor, The New York Times

Deb Amlen, chief writer for Times’ own crossword blog, also addressed the incident in a post published on Monday, and included my exchange with Shortz.

“Should Mr. Shortz have been more aware of the current usage of the word?” Amlen asked. “Sure, but no one is infallible, and I will give him points for stepping up. He is the captain of the New York Times crossword ship, and he owned his mistake. Not only that, but he has assured us that it will not happen again.”

So, there you have it. It was a mistake – a regrettable and coincidentally suiting oversight that hopefully won’t be repeated.

I, too, commend Shortz for living up to his own error, as there is no doubt in my mind that he did not mean to offend. However, I do think that Shortz’s lack of awareness is indicative, and indeed part of, a larger problem.

As a member of the media who deals with immigration matters daily, I know how hurtful the term is to millions of people, and I know that is usually overlooked by those who have no stake in the debate — including Shortz.

The thing is, there is a pretty public debate about this and other terms surrounding immigration. Republican presidential candidates have been criticized for their use of the term during nationally televised debates. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists has publicly called on media organizations to stop using not only “illegal” as a noun, but also “illegal immigrant.” And some outlets, including The Associated Press, have made their stance on the terms very clear.

I hope this incident serves as a reminder that people’s experiences should not be reduced to labels.

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