Under editor Will Shortz, The New York Times crossword puzzle has won fans for being in touch with the modern world — relying less on arcane words and more on a working knowledge of America's cultural landscape.
But according to some, Shortz took a false step with this past Saturday's puzzle, when he included a clue steeped in hip-hop slang. The clue asked for a 5-letter word that means "Wack, in hip-hop."
The answer was "Illin'".
That drew an email from freelance writer Julieanne Smolinski, who identified herself as "Not Even a Hip-Hop Expert" — but who also stated flatly, "These are not the same things, at all!"
Shortz, who also contributes a Sunday Puzzle feature to NPR, wrote a reply to Smolinski, saying that the two words can both be equated to mean "worthless, stupid."
To bolster his argument, Shortz cited the Dictionary of American Slang (edited by Robert L. Chapman) and the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (by Tony Thorne).
In response, Smolinski pointed out that Chapman's book was out of date, and that the lexicographer himself had died (in 2002, at age 81).
And an online search shows that Thorne's book was published in 1991; its most recent edition dates from 2007.
Then Smolinski, 28, cited how she hears the word used in her own experience.
"In my house we always use 'illin" to describe the act of being 'ill' in a positive sense," she wrote. "Although, to be fair, I would have to list my source as 'the rapper T.I.' (although I'm fairly certain he is MLA approved)."
Some observers who followed the debate online detracted several points from Shortz when they realized he was arguing about cultural currency... via his AOL email account.
It's possible that Shortz and Smolinski are merely arguing about a word whose meaning has shifted over the years — after all, one of the points of slang is that it excludes outsiders from knowing its meaning.
And the double-meanings that negative words often accrue in slang can even prompt confusion for rappers, themselves. Consider the need felt by Run-D.M.C., who clarified within a song that when they said "bad" they meant, "not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good."
And it's also possible that two connotations of "ill" have evolved in the past 20-30 years — one with a positive spin, and another with negative undertones.
That's the view of Marvet Britto, a PR person who works in the hip-hop community, who spoke to The New York Post about this most gentle of rap beefs. She said the intricacies of what is meant by "ill" and its derivatives are "kind of hard to articulate if you're not in the culture."
"No one would ever guess that the synonym for wack would be illin,' she said. 'You have to understand the context of how it's used. If you say 'ill,' then it means cool and good, hot. If you say 'illin,' then it's the opposite."
It should be noted that this crossword flap has largely omitted any cross words (as the puzzle masters at The Nation might put it).
Shortz was respectful of Smolinski's opinion, even as he disagreed with her. And Smolinski has made no secret of the fact that before, during and after her exchange with Shortz, she's remained a big fan of his work.
And lest anyone fear that the NY Times puzzle is going all modern, Saturday's edition, created by Joe Krozel, also threw a bone to anyone befuddled by rappers and their crazy hip-hop words.
That would be clue No. 30: "Longtime 'Guiding Light' actress Beth."
You can see a solved version of the puzzle online.