Mayo in the ano

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[Update 4/28/2008: Let me spoil the fun by pointing out that this post was supposed to be a joke. Apologies, for being excessively indirect again, to the half-a-dozen commenters who have earnestly informed me that English-language puzzles limit themselves to our standard 26 letters. I was just trying to underline, jocularly, Roger Shuy's jocular point that analogous limiting conventions in texting will probably not destroy … Oh, never mind.]

In a recent post, Roger Shuy warned us about the threat to civilization posed by the New York Times crossword puzzle:

Correct answers to the Times puzzles require no apostrophes to mark the important distinction between “its” from “it’s” or even to indicate possessive nouns. No correctly hyphenated words are permitted. And even though you know better, have you ever been able to use a comma, colon, semicolon, quotation mark, virgule, or question mark in a New York Times crossword puzzle? No, you haven’t! Not even periods after abbreviations. No spaces between words in phrases. No dashes in front of suffixes. How’s that for creeping whateverism?

As Roger observed, it's striking that those who urge action against the barbarian hordes of txters are unconcerned about the fifth column of crossworders in our midst. But Joe Gordon is sounding the tocsin. A long-time Language Log correspondent, Joe has sent me a series of notes on this subject, focusing especially on the New York Times crossword for Thursday, April 24, in which the clue to 28 across was "Mayo can be found in it", and the required answer is A-N-O. As Joe explains:

This is wrong … N is not the same letter as the one that appears in the word Year translated into Spanish. It is a different letter. I swear. Look it up.

Given the error, the clue reads, translated, "Mayo can be found in it", answer, "Anus".

Of course, if this error were corrected, then 12 down would become "chutñey".

I feel compelled to point out that this particular case is unlikely to be due to mere carelessness and ignorance. In fact, almost exactly two years ago, another member of the Gordon family pointed Ben Zimmer to an earlier example of the same "mistake", in an earlier NYT crossword ("Full tilde", 4/25/2006). Could this reveal an insidious plot to corrode American morals and taste, orchestrated by that supervillain of orthographical leveling, Will "The Puzzlemaster" Shortz?

On a related note, Gabriel Bodard at Current Epigraphy linked to my post on txting under Trajan ("pont max tr pot lol", 4/24/2008), and asked ("Inscriptions, language, and txting", 4/25/2008):

Is there value in the comparison with other cultures of condensed writing (including but not restricted to text messaging and 1337-speak) as a tool in the teaching and the study of epigraphic and palaeographic abbreviation?

Why do ancient scribes abbreviate? Is there any evidence that abbreviation ever led to ambiguity and misunderstanding of important documents? Is epigraphic abbreviation a completely different phenomenon from digital shorthand, or is there something to be learned from comparisons of this kind—or contrasts?

[And Dan Milton has pointed me to a recent Morning News article, in which loss of the tilde certainly did lead to "ambiguity and misunderstanding of important documents", if only in the creating imagination of a defense lawyer: "In Praise of Loopholes: The Anus Motion", 4/28/2008.]


  1. Dan T. said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    There is much debate among Wikipedia editors over what extent one should follow native orthographic rules in rendering words and names from non-English languages when they are referred to in the English-language version of Wikipedia, including the use of diacritical marks:

    There have also been debates about the use of quirky orthography in such things as the names of companies, products, books, movies, music groups, artists, and the like; should you say "I bought an iPod on eBay" or correct the capitalization to normal English standards? What character should the (heart) in "I (heart) NY" be considered to be?

  2. Jamie said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    ‘ñ’ isn't just an ‘n’ with a diacritic tilde, though; it's an entirely separate letter in the Spanish alphabet. So if Wikipedia (or the crossword) chooses to omit the tilde, it is fundamentally a spelling error rather than whatever you call the failure to include accent marks.

    Re I (heart) NY, maybe Unicode 2665 (♥)?

  3. Ellen K. said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    As far as this example in Wikipedia, Wikipedia uses the ñ in article titles. Año Nuevo Island, Jalapeño.

  4. Dan T. said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

    But Google Maps seems to have it as "Ano Nuevo Island".,-122.337778&spn=0.01,0.01&q=37.108333,-122.337778

  5. Amy said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 11:16 pm

    For the purposes of American crosswords, when foreign words sneak in, we ignore any accents, umlauts, cedillas, tildes, or other such marks.

    Although in the present case, the clue works both ways. Swear to god, a friend who used to be an X-ray tech told me the other day that she has a copy of a 50-year-old X-ray of a small mayo jar wedged in an año.

  6. Dan T. said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 8:00 am

    Spanish-speaking people themselves can be sloppy on the "n" vs. "ñ" distinction; I've put web-forum pages where Hispanic teens chat into translators like Babelfish and wound up with some of them saying things like "I have 16 anuses".

  7. john riemann soong said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 8:22 am

    Is it necessarily sloppy? French chatspeak doesn't bother itself with accented-e's and all that — it just writes phonetically. On the French side, I'm sure someone's screaming about the youth not being able to differentiate the past participle and the infinitive. Supposedly.

  8. marie-lucie Tarpent said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:36 am

    On the French side, …. the youth not being able to differentiate the past participle and the infinitive. Supposedly.

    When the past participle and the infinitive sound different (as in fini/finir) no one confuses the two, but where they sound the same (as in passé/passer), writing one for the other has always been one of the most common errors made by people of all ages. I have even seen it occasionally in Le Monde articles, which are presumably proofread before appearing. So it is definitely not restricted to the young.

  9. marie-lucie said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    p.s. Why did my last name appear in the name slot, when I only wrote my first name?

  10. Ellen K. said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

    I imagine for Spanish speakers typing n for ñ is much more common than writing (by hand) n for ñ. And I don't think shortcuts taken in typing for convenience are relevant to crossword puzzles.

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

    Actually ANO is quite a common word in crossword writing. You'll find it in the NYTimes crossword at least once every few weeks, I would guess. The same is true of any other short word with useful common letters, provided there's a useful or standard way to clue it. (Certain other unfamiliar "words" to watch out for in crosswords: ERLE, REA, OLEO, OLIO, ERN, AERIE.) I do recall one time that ANO occurred in a place where it crossed SENOR, which I thought was a very elegant grid indeed.

    And for the sake of pedantry, I'll also note on NYTimes crossword puzzle from some time in the past year where punctuation was needed. The four long answers going across were phrases involving the names of punctuation marks, but you had to just enter the mark itself in a single square, rather than writing out the name, because the down clues going through those squares used the names as well (though perhaps in a different sense – I can't recall).

  12. David Marjanović said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 4:24 pm

    French chatspeak doesn’t bother itself with accented-e’s and all that — it just writes phonetically.

    That's pretty much the opposite of what "phonetically" means!

  13. Gwillim Law said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    I believe it's standard practice in word games in any western European language to ignore diacritical marks. I know I've worked French crossword puzzles where the E would have had a different diacritic in the across word from the down word. I've also seen French and Spanish phrases described as palindromes where the diacritics are different in the two directions. I haven't made a systematic study, but the question came up years ago, and I've been watching for the answer ever since.

  14. marie-lucie said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

    Traditionally, French capital letters do not take accents, so in crossword puzzles only the basic letter counts, not its diacritics.

  15. GAC said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

    On Spanish chatspeak — there are a few different ways to do it. Obviously, if someone has the proper keyboard and knows how to use it, it's not so difficult to include ñ. But sometimes the right equipment/software isn't available, so people will either use unaccented n by itself, or represent it as ny or ni. (I don't know which is most used, though ny would be the least ambiguous.)

  16. Daniel said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    Surely it's irrelevant that in Spanish "n with tilde" (sorry, no tilde on my keyboard) and "n" are entirely different letters. It would be important were the NYT teaching us Spanish, but this is a crossword in English. What seems more debate-worthy to me is whether foreign words which aren't a regular part of the English language, even when well known, have a place in an English crossword (and I'm not sure that they don't).

    As for the use of diacritics in texting and crosswords, these are two different things. I know Polish, and Polish crosswords distinguish between e.g. "a" and "a with a tail" (oh, the paucity of my keyboard), while Polish texts and often emails use either the phonetic "an" or just a straight "a".

  17. GAC said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

    Ah, almost forgot: Wanted to point out — 1337 speak is a lot more than just abbreviation — there are actually types that lengthen the word, such as the suffix XX0rz. The whole point of it is that it's intended to be creative and hard to read — which is also why a lot of serious gamers really hate it (it's nice to be able to quickly understand people in a raid).

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