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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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On Dictionary Nature

Every week, as we create the diagram, we need to decide what entries are acceptable.

Our main criterion is that we like our entries to have “dictionary nature.” A word or phrase has dictionary nature if it appears in a dictionary, if it would appear in a theoretical, large-enough dictionary, or if it appears or would appear in a plausible list. The concept of “dictionary nature” is due to Xemu of the National Puzzlers’ League (Guy Jacobson).

It is easy to check whether a word appears in a dictionary. The concept of dictionary nature is intended to serve as a guide in the case of words and phrases that do not. For example, a word may be assembled out of legitimate parts, and thus have a clear meaning even though it appears in no dictionary. For example, “underclued,” which could be used to describe some unsolvable puzzles, appears in no dictionary, and yet has a perfectly clear meaning in context. That’s not to suggest that we’d use it in a puzzle, but we certainly would not summarily rule it out. On the other hand, “underapple,” say, would be out of the question, as we cannot imagine a dictionary large enough to have reason to contain it.

And as always, there are some in-between cases: one of us once invented the word “overbread” (i.e., bungle the preparation of a veal cutlet) for inclusion in a puzzle, because it consisted of “verb” inside “oread” (a mountain nymph). That’s probably too blatant a fabrication to include in a Nation cryptic, but on the other hand it has a clear and sensible hypothetical meaning, unlike “underapple.”

The concept of dictionary nature is mostly useful to judge the acceptability of phrases. For example, “third cousin” would appear in a large enough dictionary, but “your cousin” would not (no offense). “Orange juice” would not need to appear in a dictionary of any size, since the meaning of the phrase is clear from its components, but it has dictionary nature because it would appear in various plausible lists: menus, shopping lists, nutrition guides, etc. “Orange elephant,” on the other hand, does not have dictionary nature.

Given this, you may point out that in our very first puzzle (#3197), we failed to pass our own test, since we included “change of the guard” in the diagram, although we knew perfectly well that the actual phrase is “changing of the guard.” We justified this to ourselves by pointing to the Steely Dan song “Change of the Guard.” Still, we acknowledge that was probably not the right decision.

Of course, there are phrases whose dictionary nature is debatable, such as “sticks and stones” (probably yes) or “break my bones” (probably no). In fact, there is a whole genre of idiomatic phrases which are occasionally used in standard crosswords but not seen in cryptics. For example, these phrases have appeared as entries in New York Times puzzles: “It’s not my problem,” “Truth is,” “I dig.” Will such entries find their way into our puzzles? Frankly, we don’t know. So far we have not gone that far out. Do you have an opinion on this?

We will discuss other entry acceptability criteria in future posts. Meanwhile, see what you think of this perhaps unorthodox clue:
   Daughter: what is seen several times a day at Buckingham Palace (8,2,3,5)

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