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A Few Words About a Few Words | The Nation

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Word Salad

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

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A Few Words About a Few Words

(First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines.)

In response to our post about themed cryptics, a British newspaper crossword editor who wishes to remain anonymous commented:

“In British cryptics, a barred grid indicates difficult vocabulary rather than a theme. The intention for most blocked grid puzzles is that you should be able to finish them without reference books, though you may have written in one or two answers that you would like to check afterwards. Most barred grid puzzles name a standard reference dictionary (always Chambers) and expect most solvers to use it. There are both themed blocked-grid puzzles and unthemed barred-grid ones. Themed block ones could be in any paper, but are most common in the Guardian, the Independent and the Financial Times—the Times and Telegraph, the other two in our weekday “big 5” have very few themed puzzles. Unthemed barred grid ones, all on Sundays, are Azed (Observer), Mephisto (Sunday Times) and Beelzebub (Independent on Sunday).

“In a country [the United States] where other blocked grid puzzles often have themes, it seems perfectly sensible to me to have themed blocked grid cryptics.”

And in fact, themed black-square cryptics have been a hit among our solvers. At least we think so, based on the reaction from both our friends and the strangers who have written to us. Let’s hope this catches on, and more themed black-square cryptics start appearing in other publications!

In another post, we mentioned our willingness to include uncommon words in our puzzles. This is a break with both US and British convention for black-square puzzles, but it is in line with our predecessor Frank Lewis, who had no objection to expanding his solvers’ vocabulary. See this 2008 homage to Frank by Peter Kramer, the author of Listening to Prozac, in his blog on the Psychology Today site.

As cryptic editors for The Enigma, we edited puzzles that are often considerably more challenging than anything else available in the United States. Part of that level of difficulty is achieved by borrowing a few ideas from our British counterparts, including the reliance on a standard dictionary, as mentioned above. In The Enigma, anything whatsoever that appears in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is fair game. So it is legitimate not only to use obscure words as entries, but even obscure usages of words in clues. In our Nation puzzle, we do not go that far. If the entry is obscure, the clue will be straightforward. Here is an example from puzzle #3224:

Main objection raised is petty (3-3)

This was a down clue, so “raised” indicated a reversal. The answer was TIN-POT, as in “a tin-pot dictator”, which was not familiar to some solvers. Still, given T.N-P.T this was guessable, especially with the help of TOP NIT, two common words.

If the entry is common, we may reference an unfamiliar meaning of it, as in this double definition from the same puzzle:

Grasp and shoot (4)

The answer was TWIG. A twig is a shoot, and to twig means to comprehend, or grasp—a usage you may not have been familiar with. Again, with the W and the G checked, this seemed quite gettable to us.

Still, our use of less-known words is the exception, not the rule. We are assuming that, like Peter Kramer, you’re not averse to learning a new word or two when solving one of our puzzles. When you come across such a word, you can take a trip to the dictionary or the Internet to confirm your hunch. (We usually check two or three references before including an obscure word.) And you can tell your friends who don’t twig your enjoyment of cryptic crosswords that their objections are petty, and that this hobby of yours is educational: After all, the word you learn today may turn up in a puzzle tomorrow!

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