“No goats. No glory,” was the answer.
The question? “Herder’s mantra.”
If you don’t think that’s funny or think it’s not worth an hour (or more) of your time to solve, then you probably are not interested in the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, one of my very favorite things on Earth, after Helen’s strawberry pie and Morse’s Reuben sandwich.
For your information, the NYT phenomenon turned 75 years old last week, or slightly younger than I. It is my personal addiction. I must do the puzzle every day, in ink, of course. The puzzle is released every day at 10 p.m. and I am there waiting at my computer. I pay $49 a year for computer access, which is far less expensive than buying 365 newspapers to get the puzzle. I cannot go to sleep until it has been completed. All right, I consult Google when I can go no further. I confess.
If you are a crossword puzzle fan, Will Shortz is your personal rock star. He is the editor of the daily puzzle.
“Well, first of all, if you’re a puzzle sort of person and you look at an empty crossword grid, you naturally feel compelled to fill in the squares. That’s part of the appeal,” Shortz told CBS News. “It’s partly the testing of yourself. Solving a crossword is one way to affirm that you can still think.”
“It keeps you from losing your mind,” one fan told CBS. The puzzle activity has been trumpeted as a barrier against Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t know about that, but it does feel good to use your brain to solve the puns, anagrams and ancient words. Each day. I don’t do it to make myself smarter. I do it to take my brain for a nice walk.
The crossword puzzle gets progressively more difficult through the week. Monday is almost too easy. The Saturday puzzle — to me — is like an exam for your PhD. It can take several delicious hours. Sometimes when you fill in all the blanks, you still don’t understand the answer. Those are the good puzzles.
I am not alone. An estimated 1.5 million people attack the daily puzzle. It wasn’t always so. Crossword puzzles became a national fad in 1924 and 1925, but the staid N.Y. Times rejected the fad and even condemned it as a “waste of time,” Shortz told CBS. “The Times was the last major metropolitan daily newspaper to start a crossword.”
The Times ran its first crossword puzzle two months after Pearl Harbor. That first crossword had a World War II theme to play off the day’s headlines. “Seems kind of crazy. The crossword really should divert you from the harsher parts of life. Crosswords are escapism,” Shortz said.
There have only been four puzzle editors at the paper in the last 75 years. Shortz took over in 1993.
The most common answer in the history of the Times’ puzzle is “area,” having appeared more than 1,400 times. But in the Will Shortz era, the most common answer has been “era.”
Why that word? “The nice thing about it is that there’s lots of ways to clue it,” Shortz explained. “You know, it’s the historical period. It is the earned run average in baseball. It’s the name of a laundry detergent. Orono often appears in the puzzle, thanks to all those vowels.
My name often appears in the Times puzzle. No, not for my unique writing style. “Emmet” is an ant and “Meara” is Stiller’s comedy partner.
On Election Day in November 1996, The New York Times published one of its most memorable puzzles. The country was deciding between Bob Dole and Bill Clinton, and so was the puzzle.
In a boggling creation, “The answer could be Clinton elected or Bob Dole elected. Either one worked with the crossings,” Shortz told CBS. “For example, the first down answer was, ‘Black Halloween animal.’ And you could fill in ‘cat’ forming the ‘C’ of ‘Clinton’ or ‘bat’ forming the first ‘B’ of ‘Bob Dole.’ And each of the succeeding answers did double duty just like that. That was the first time a crossword ever was schizophrenic like that, first time a crossword ever had two answers.”
Brilliant. Kept me going for hours.
Some more hints. A crossword puzzle’s favorite cookie is the Oreo. Its favorite music producer is Brian Eno. And its favorite skater is either Apolo Ohno or Midori Ito. Remember that. Lot of vowels.
“The crossword is the best variety of puzzle ever devised. It’s just a very versatile puzzle that appeals to people,” Shortz said.
Will the NYT puzzle last another 75 years?
“I think the crossword is here to stay,” Shortz told CBS.
I don’t think I will.
Emmet Meara lives in Camden in blissful retirement after working as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland for 30 years.