Folk despair, these days, of young people whose only ambition is to become a celebrity. But what higher accomplishment could there be than to become celebrated (or reviled) enough to be immortalized in a crossword answer?
It’s no mean feat. The first crossword, which graced the New York World on December 21, 1913, didn’t feature anybody’s name at all, although it did offer the first meta-clue (four letters, “What this puzzle is”).
Loftier publications scorned crosswords as “a menace… making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society” (The Times of London) and refused to carry crosswords despite the widespread “mania” for the puzzles. (Perhaps we’ll see Candy Crush Saga in the virtual pages of the Times in a couple of decades.)
The London Times eventually caved in 1930 (the New York Times held out until 1942 — see below), and its second clue involved nobody less than a poet (nine letters, “Part of a Milton title”). Even then, the Times adopted a policy of featuring only dead celebrities in its grids, with the exception — until her death in 2022 — of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Tough competition!
Crosswords are a checkered mirror that society holds up to itself. So, Crossword Solver wondered what they actually say about celebrities: what types of people do crosswords feature most often in their clues and answers? We scoured 110 years and 6.3 million crossword clues and answers to identify the professions and accomplishments that crossword writers believe worthy of gracing the hallowed grid.
Oh yes, and as for the meta-clue in that first crossword: this puzzle is hard. That Milton title? Il Penseroso.
Crossword Solver cross-referenced a list of 2.29 million notable people with a database of 6.3 million newspaper crossword clues and answers to find out how often a name has appeared in crosswords dated between 1913 and March 2023. We categorized the people by industry and calculated how many of each type have appeared in each U.S. and UK newspaper. We also made a year-by-year breakdown for the New York Times crossword.
More than half of the people mentioned in crossword clues are film and TV stars (30.9%) or musicians (20.0%). The big names of literature, sports and politics make a splash, too, followed by a long tail of poorly represented professions: royal names account for just 1.7% of celebrity crossword clues and answers, and religious figures score just 1.1%.
So who are those film stars? Talent and fame aren’t the only qualifiers — a name that can get a crossword constructor out of a tight corner also helps.
The New York Times admitted as much in 2019 when it handed out Griddy Awards to actors “who frequently show up in puzzles.” The top actress? Four letters, “Actress Falco” or “Falco of ‘The Sopranos.’” Actor? Well, “Richard of ‘Pretty Woman’” is a godsend to constructors thanks to his four-letter surname with a plethora of letter Es.
When South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994, the Guardian’s crossword setter asked the editor to ‘hold the press’ while he compiled a special crossword featuring names such as Nelson Mandela and Ruth First. Why such urgency? “These were people I thought Guardian readers should know," Araucaria later remarked. Your newspaper of choice says a lot about you, and its crossword clues may be the quickest way to get a grip on what your choice says. However, more than any other major UK or U.S. paper, the Guardian likes film stars.
The Guardian is joined in primarily featuring film and TV stars by major publications such as The Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post and New York Times.
The New Yorker is the first big U.S. name to buck the trend, posing marginally more clues featuring musicians. However, it also bucks the theory that newspaper crosswords look like their readers, unless the typical New Yorker reader has the latest One Direction LP in their tote, jostling for space with their Kierkegaard books and croquet set.
The New York Times was indignantly anti-crossword during the puzzle’s early years, believing it a trifle for lower forms of publication. One columnist despaired of the “mobs and crowds” committing “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letter of which will fit into a prearranged pattern, more or less complex.”
Crosswords had been popular for nearly thirty years before the Times finally ran one on February 15, 1942, in the wake of Pearl Harbor — hoping to brighten its pages and offer a distraction during “bleak blackout hours.”
We chose to analyze New York Times crosswords all the way back to 1948. Then literary figures made up 25.2% of the celebrities in its crosswords and film stars made up just 16.8%. Sample clue: Irish dramatist; author of "The Critic," 1779 (nine letters).
Film stars took over the top spot in 1951, although they were often obscure by today’s standards (Ava Norring?). And film and TV stars have largely dominated ever since — the last year with another category on top was when literature took it in 1979.
Oh yes. That Irish writer? Sheridan.
The New York Times alone delivers around 32,000 clues and answers each year. But clues are often recycled across the years. And publications crossword lovers are crossword fanatics, so there’s always a chance that you’ll come across a celebrity clue that you can solve with your memory instead of your fathoming skills.
Thankfully, we have not only new celebrities but new categories of celebrities and new ways of posing clues to keep the variety going. So, if you’re not yet famous enough to appear in a crossword yourself, you can blame the fiendish puzzles set in our paths every day.
To discover which types of people appear most often in crosswords, we took the names from a verified database of more than 2.29 million notable individuals categorized by sector, occupation, gender and other biographical information: Laouenan, M., Bhargava, P., Eyméoud, JB. et al. A cross-verified database of notable people, 3500BC-2018AD. Sci Data 9, 290 (2022).
With this seed list of notable names, we scanned our database of 6,320,283 newspaper crossword clues and answers from 62 publications to find out how often these names appeared. Based on these names and the sector (e.g., politics) or biographical category (e.g., criminal) that the names were categorized into, we then calculated as a percentage of how often each ‘type of person’ appeared in crosswords from 1913 to March 2023.
Where a news brand publishes more than one type of crossword, these crosswords were combined in the analysis under one news publication’s single brand name.
In some cases, two or more people shared the same name in the original seed list or were homonymous with fictional characters or places, such as James Bond (fictional character and ornithologist) or Taj Mahal (landmark and musician). These examples of names were not considered in the final analysis.
The data of this analysis is correct as of April 2023.