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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

Puzzles and the English Language

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

This is a piece I wrote about telling meaningful stories for a marketing job application in 2017 (never heard back, unfortunately), so I thought I would share it here instead.

The NYT crossword for 8/23/23 with INSIDE as the answer (not Bo Burnham's masterpiece as the clue, sadly)

Enjoy my short item about enigmatology and dissecting language!


Enigmatology. It's a complex word with a puzzling meaning. Literally.

The term comes with a fascinating history attached to it. One of the most well-known puzzle enthusiasts is Will Shortz, the current crossword puzzle editor for the New York Times. [Ed. note: He's been at it for 30 years now—incredible!]

Shortz earned his B.A. in Enigmatology from Indiana University in 1974. Since the crossword maven was able to design his own curriculum to match his interests, he decided to study puzzles and is the only person in the world known to hold such a degree.

Enigmatology might be a fancy word meaning "the study of puzzles," but I would go so far as to say many of the standard majors or paths to academic success hinge on this very concept. Law, history, science, and math all incorporate solving problems, or puzzles, into the curricula.

For me, however, the study of the English language is the purest example of enigmatology. Being able to find the right puzzle piece in a sea of nearly identical jigsaw cutouts or determining the missing letter in 22-Across by figuring out another word for "margarine" (OLEO) is a skill remarkably similar to unraveling the subtext in a piece of literature or deciphering the motivations of an enigmatic character.

The English language itself is full of puzzles, especially when it comes to the intricacies of spelling, grammar, and idiomatic expressions. Indeed, all components of literature—words, paragraphs, chapters, etc.—are pieces that one must place correctly in order to "solve" the larger puzzle of writing.

Growing up, my two passions were puzzles and words. In fact, I loved solving word puzzles so much that my grandfather gave me the beloved moniker of "Puzzle Girl." I always enjoyed putting the pieces together, and I found later in life that the same skills that made me an excellent puzzle solver helped me become a better writer as well.

Knowing how to use the right words, ideas, and feelings enlivens your story and makes your product more accessible and relatable to your customers. While anyone can spin a tale, people who understand the importance of puzzles and who are true scholars of enigmatology will be your best bet for telling your story, one perfectly placed word at a time.

Bo solving a crossword puzzle in one of his famous Vines


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