Crossword puzzles have changed a lot in the past 25 years. Older puzzles were commonly filled with vocabulary that was almost never encountered outside of crosswords — things like ESNE ("Anglo-Saxon slave"), ULU ("Eskimo knife"), ANOA ("Celebes ox"), and INEE ("Arrow poison"). Such answers are called "crosswordese," and you simply had to know them to be good at crosswords.
Nowadays it's rare to see outright obscurity like this in puzzles. Crossword constructors try hard to use only answers that most solvers know. Computer software and databases of approved vocabulary now aid in creating better puzzles.
Still, a few not-so-common words show up with surprising frequency even in high-quality puzzles. Because they're short and vowel-heavy, they're very hard for constructors to avoid. If you do crosswords much, the following five words will be very useful to know.
"Away from the wind, nautically" or "Out of the wind"; sometimes clued more enigmatically as "On the safe side" or "How a ship's sails may be positioned."
"Sea eagle," "White-tailed bird," or "Fish-eating raptor."
2. ERN or ERNE
"Needle case," "Sewing case," or (slightly harder) "Needle holder"; it's also a "French CD holder," although even that meaning now has become passé.
"S-shaped molding," "Curved molding," or "Kind of arch."
"Mishmash," "Miscellany," "Mélange," "Potpourri," or "Hodgepodge."
Will Shortz is the crossword editor for the New York Times, an advisor to Planet Word, and the world's first and only enigmatologist.
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