Crossing words with a crossword EDitor

Filling in the method and madness behind Ed Egerdahl’s Norsk-Engelsk Kryssord Puzzles

Ed Egerdahl filling in his crossword puzzle.
Photo courtesy of Ed Egerdahl
All the EDs that are fit to print! To say there are themes Egerdahl returns to repeatedly in his puzzles would be an understatement.

Those who’ve been solving the crosswords a long time know a few tricks. First, look for a two-letter blank. In pencil, go ahead and write in the letters E and D. Now check the clue. Odds are it says something like “Norsk klasse skolebusssjåfør!”1 or “kryssord mester i sitt eget hode.”2

The Norsk-Engelsk Kryssord Puzzles that Ed Egerdahl develops for his Norwegian language classes offer students more than a chance to practice their Norwegian; they’re also a glimpse into his mind.

Egerdahl’s been teaching Norwegian for 39 years, and making crosswords for almost as long. He read an article “long, long ago” that claimed the two best brain exercises were crossword puzzles and foreign language studies. One can almost imagine the lightbulb going on over his head.

Each quarter of his classes, currently held at Seattle’s Nordic Heritage Museum, begins with distribution of one of these crossword puzzles. Students, many of whom have been taking his classes for years—or in several cases decades—get to work translating the Norsk clues into English and looking for an answer. Some do, anyway.

Egerdahl laments that he has no real way of knowing if people are completing the puzzles, though he knows that some students do them as “homework,” a flexible term in a class that many attend as much for the social aspect as the educational activity. To get them started, he’ll usually go over a few clues on the first day of class.

This fall in his Intermediate/Advanced class—the level to which students quickly ascend and from which there is no graduation—he merely pointed out a few words in the clues that might be unfamiliar to students. He asked his new co-teacher, Nadia Kristiansen, a Norwegian from Fredrikstad whom he described as a “levende ordbok,”3 to tell the class what “fluer” and “mygg” were—på norsk, selvfølgelig!4

Egerdahl’s philosophy on language learning is to hope that students are picking up “enough,” both when listening and reading. He had by this time already interviewed Kristiansen about her upbringing in Norway, her education, and her family and pets—five pets, including one cat, two guinea pigs, and two birds without tails—to much laughter and nodding along from the class, and a few quizzical head tilts.

Back at the crossword, another clue contains the word spøkpartner, which was defined through a long chain of other Norwegian words, including morsomt and komisk,5 which eventually led everyone to a definition for spøk—joke—and the concept of a comedic duo.

“A lot of what I do is shtick,” Egerdahl admits, and indeed at times it seems teaching his students Norwegian is but a convenient side effect of his Norsk stand-up routine.

The same goes for his crossword puzzles.

So how does he make them? He starts by solving someone else’s puzzle. Every day Egerdahl solves the New York Times crossword puzzle, in pen, as part of his regular brain exercise, but most of these won’t work for his purposes. First and foremost, he needs two-letter blanks that he can use to leave his mark on the crossword. Most grids don’t have these.

Next, he starts changing the answers. Two-letter answers like “do” and “to” and “OK” get turned to—you guessed it—“ED.” (Though not always. A quick glance through previous answer keys reveals a wealth of missed opportunities.)

“Changing a vowel to a consonant is the hardest thing to do,” Egerdahl says. And from there the changes radiate out. Because of course the challenge and the joy of a crossword puzzle is that all the lines and columns within have to be words.

This is where making a bilingual kryssord is actually an advantage. Egerdahl gives the example of changing “mallard” to “Ballard”—which along with “Norge” and “Norsk” is a word he likes to shoehorn into puzzles as often as possible—and as a result also changing “milder” to “bilder.” Heldigvis for Egerdahl, that’s still a word!6 All he has to do is put (N) at the end of that clue.

He’s also free to use the same answers twice in one puzzle. “That would never fly in the New York Times,” he says.

Writing clues, of course, is where the fun comes in. Egerdahl freely admits that his goal is to elicit groans. “I try to make the clues clever and irritating,” he says. “I write what tickles my funny bone, though sometimes that comes back to bite me in the ass. You can quote me on that!”

“Bites in ass…” I mutter as I jot it down.

“Teeth marks in my rumpe,”7 he agrees.

As the evening’s students work on the crossword, one remarks that she’s getting the hang of them after getting to know Egerdahl’s sense of humor for a while. Which prompts me to ask what is for me the most important question: Can a person who hasn’t met Egerdahl solve these puzzles? After all, The Norwegian American has been printing them in this paper for almost four years, and the vast majority of our readers will never be so lucky as to meet, as one of his clues calls him, “lærerens navn som staves ( . – . . ) i morsetegn (nå har du lært noe!),”8 in person.

Kristiansen answers right away: “No.”

“Not ever?” I ask.

She considers it. “Well… No.” You have to get his logic, she adds.

Riktignok!9 But there is a learning curve on the work of any crossword editor.

“Crossword EDitor?” I ask, and Egerdahl groans and laughs, which I take as a measure of success.

My pressing crossword questions answered, I’ll let another of Egerdahl’s self-referential clues conclude this story: “Som typisk, her får han det siste ordet igjen!”10

1) Norwegian class school bus driver

2) crossword master in his own head

3) living dictionary

4) flies; mosquitoes; in Norwegian, obviously!

5) funny; comical

6) bilder means photographs; heldigvis luckily

7) do we really need to define this one?

8) teacher’s name spelled ( . – . . ) in Morse code (now you’ve learned something!)

9) admittedly

10) As usual, here he gets the last word again

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This article originally appeared in the Oct. 20, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.