'Scumbag,' a puzzler

It's clear to me that crossword puzzling isn't hereditary. My father routinely completes the Sunday puzzle ("it's not too difficult really") as my Grandmother before him, yet the only one I consistently defeat is the Monday edition -- a mere warmup for serious puzzlers.

Last Monday's had a little surprise waiting for solvers of 43 down, "Scoundrel." The answer, SCUMBAG, drew a good deal of criticism, and only partly for the reason you'd suspect.

Doc Manhattan is not alone in his mild disdain for its vulgarity:

I'm not against the word, or any word, but time-and-place, people! What's next--"46-Down: CROTCHROT?" My grandmother Would Not Approve, that's for damn sure. Then again, why shouldn't the Times have its slow, steady decline spread to the crossword?
Others, however, object to the etymological violation. While common contemporary usage certainly fits scoundrel well enough, it was once a vulgar term for a condom, only relatively recently coming to mean a person with no integrity.

Slate's Jesse Sheidlower asking whether you can be offensive even if you don't know you're being offensive, quotes the author of the puzzle: "I'm dumbfounded—and also just plain dumb I guess. I was totally ignorant of its vulgar side."

Of the importance of context he writes: "A nipple may be vulgar if displayed by a stripper, but it's surely not if it's being used to feed a baby. And in this case, the sense is unquestionably not vulgar. How do we know? The Times gives us the definition! If, once you come up with the seven letters, you're still bothered, well, you're the one with the dirty mind."


Doc Manhattan's description of the joy of puzzling is charming enough to be noted, though it just doesn't fit into this post:
I like the meditative focus of the puzzle, the sort of caffeinated shift in perspective that I feel when speaking a foreign language for a long time. It is another language of sorts, one with an ever-changing cipher of rules whose sole purpose is wit. You can see the draw for us English teachers. I especially enjoy the thrill of uncovering what I call the "cross clues," the items that inform the themes and rules of the puzzle. I enjoy it even more when those clues include terrible puns or corny jokes.
(Mr. Smith's Filibuster, Slate)

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