One of the things that earns praise for the New York Times crossword, under the editorial oversight of Will Shortz, is its clever use of common phrases and pop culture for clues. But despite Shortz’s attempt to keep the puzzles relevant (and therefore, solvable without the help of a multivolume reference books), he occasionally runs into trouble with his readers.
Two weeks ago, the a group campaigning to “lose the I word” when discussing the legal status of immigrants, flagged the answer to a clue in the Thursday, February 15 puzzle. The word “illegal” was the answer to “one caught by border control.” After Univision Immigration Editor, Juan E. Gastelum, wrote a letter to the Times in complaint, Shortz responded:
“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.”
Drop the I-word offers just a few other ways to describe immigrants’ legal status—undocumented, unauthorized, and without papers—as well as good reasons why not to use the word. While interviewing Carmen Nanko-Fernandez last year, we learned of the phrase, “alternatively-documented,” which we think is perhaps more accurate than calling someone undocumented.