Date: January 27, 2012
Byline: Matt Gaffney
The Shortz Factor
Introducing a new measure of crossword-related fame.
Etta James died last week. To most people that meant the loss of a blues legend, but for crossword puzzle writers like myself, it meant something quite different. Etta James was famous in real life, but she's also “crossword-famous” — a woman whose handy, four-letter first name has gotten us out of many tough corners and spared us countless painful rewrites.
What does it mean to be crossword-famous? That your name is better known by regular crossword-solvers than it is by the general population. Take a guy like Jay Leno — his last name is a godsend to puzzle writers, and it appears in crosswords all the time. But Leno is also a television megastar, known to people who have never lingered with a pen over the back page of the New York Times. He’s no more crossword-famous than he is real-famous.
With this in mind, Slate has created an objective measure of crossword fame, calculated by dividing the number of times a person's name has appeared as a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle by the number of times that same person's name has appeared in the rest of the newspaper combined. In honor of Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, we have dubbed this new statistic the Shortz Factor. For each name, we've compared its frequencies in the Times crossword and the paper's other sections going all the way back to 1993, when Shortz took over from his predecessor, Eugene T. Maleska. For example, ETTA, as in Etta James, has turned up 80 times in the puzzle during that span, while "Etta James" showed up 198 times in the rest of the paper. Divide one by the other and you get her Shortz Factor: 0.40. That means the legendary blues singer is less than half as famous in the crossword puzzle as she was in real life.
Before we get to our crossword hall of fame, let's consider the specific qualities that might turn a minor celebrity into a crossword icon. The applicant must satisfy three criteria:
- He or she must have a name that's useful for crosswords. Puzzle writers prefer having rare letters in unusual combinations (for example, I once snuck JFK, JR into a New York Times crossword at 1-down), but short groupings of common letters are the lifeblood of crosswords, and you'll need a lot of them if you want to make things work. For that reason, crossword-famous names are likely to be three, four, or five letters long, with as many 1-point Scrabble letters as possible. Think of names with a lot of vowels, and any combination of N, R, T, L, or S.
- His or her name must be unusual. If it's not, there will be too many alternative paths to the same puzzle outcome. LEE is a useful and common crossword entry, for instance, but there are dozens of famous LEEs out there; someone like Spike or Ang isn't going to get as much clue love if he's competing with Bruce, Brenda, and Sara. Other useful names that won't produce any singular crossword celebrities include LOU, ANNA, ELI, and ALAN. An ambiguous name like ART would be even worse, since it can also be clued as a regular word. The more unfamiliar the name, the better.
- He or she can’t be too famous. Muhammad ALI has been name-checked more often than anyone else (173 times) in the New York Times crossword since 1993, but he’s also arguably the most recognizable athlete of all time, so his fame transcends the lettered grid. Indeed, his name has shown up in the rest of the newspaper 1,927 times, so his Shortz Factor is 0.09 — less than one-quarter of Etta James'. (Shortz Factors for rival ALIs, including his daughter Laila and actress ALI MacGraw, wouldn't be much higher.) Next on the list of mentions in Times crosswords are Arthur ASHE (146 puzzle mentions) and Yoko ONO (144). These well-known figures were mentioned 1,323 and 776 times in the rest of the newspaper, respectively, and their Shortz Factors are just 0.11 and 0.18.
A word on methodology: Our 18-year window gives us about 6,600 crosswords to look at, and well over half a million clues. To have a valid Shortz Factor, a name must appear at least 25 times in the puzzle during that stretch. (Otherwise a real nobody could walk off with the trophy by getting, say, six puzzle mentions and one paper mention, and no one would like that.)
So who are the most crossword-famous people in the world? Our analysis found exactly seven celebrities with a Shortz Factor greater than 1.00. These form the select group of crossword icons whose names appear more often in the puzzle than they do in the newspaper of record. In reverse order of fame, we hereby present the first-ever Shortz List of Crossword Celebrities:
No. 7: URI Geller, the self-proclaimed “mentalist” and spoon-bender extraordinaire. With 37 puzzle appearances and only 31 mentions in the Times, he earns a Shortz Factor of 1.19. If not for the Swiss canton stealing his thunder 41 times during our study period, he’d have rated much higher. Best clue, from a 1997 puzzle: “That Geller feller.”
No. 6: YMA Sumac, Peruvian chanteuse of the 1950s and beyond. Her 50 puzzle appearances and 36 in the paper net a Shortz Factor of 1.39. Unlike URI, she dominated her name group: Every single one of the 50 YMAs that appeared in the Times puzzle referred to her. Ympressive.
No. 5: Mel OTT, baseball Hall of Famer. Like former Orioles first-baseman Eddie Murray, Ott is less famous as a baseball player than his stats would imply. He’s 23rd on the career homeruns list, but with 124 puzzle mentions versus a mere 81 in the paper, his Shortz Factor comes in at fifth place all-time, 1.53. Come on, New York Times, write more about this guy! Master Melvin has even appeared on a postage stamp.
No. 4: ESAI Morales, journeyman actor (and "famous vegetarian") known for his roles in La Bamba and NYPD Blue. At the start of this study, ESAI was my pick to win. He looks promising, with a vowel-heavy, unusual name (like YMA, no other ESAIs appeared in a crossword grid), and the sort of middlebrow fame that wouldn’t encourage much ink from the rest of the newspaper. Morales wasn't at the top of the list, but he came through with an excellent Shortz Factor of 1.93.
No. 3: ERTÉ, the one-named Franco-Russian print artist whose greatest fame came in the 1920s and 1930s. This one came as a surprise. Sure, his name has great letters and can’t be clued any other way, but I was sure that ERTÉ was the kind of once-popular-and-occasionally-popular-again artist who would be referenced many times outside of the puzzle. But no: His name proved more compelling than his magazine covers, costume designs, and theater sets. A healthy 110 mentions in the puzzle compared with just 54 mentions in the paper puts his Shortz Factor at 2.04, our first contestant to be more than twice as famous in crosswords as he was in real life.
No. 2: Charlotte RAE, the character actress who played Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life. She’ll take the good (33 mentions in the puzzle), she’ll take the bad (just 11 mentions in the paper), she’ll take them both, and then she’ll have an outstanding Shortz Factor of 3.00. She’d have reached even greater heights if it weren't for the movie Norma Rae, actress Rae Dawn Chong, and, in recent years, singer Corinne Bailey Rae.
No. 1: And the most crossword-famous person in the land, a man whose celebrity exceeds even that of Mrs. Garrett ... ERLE Stanley Gardner. The mystery writer who gave us the character of Perry Mason got 138 mentions in the Times puzzle — fourth behind ALI, ASHE, and ONO — but a paltry 26 mentions in the rest of the newspaper. To his Shortz Factor of 5.31 no other minor celebrity even came close. (Raymond BURR, who played Perry Mason on TV, nets a Shortz Factor of just 0.02.) Gardner has all the makings of an icon: an outstanding crossword name with two vowels; a high level of specificity (he did lose a few mentions to Erle P. Halliburton, the eponymous founder of the oilfield services company); and a bygone, niche career that's not quite interesting enough to have been referenced very often in the newspapers of the 1990s and 2000s. Congratulations, ERLE! You're at the top of the Shortz List.