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The Etymological Taboo | The Nation

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

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The Etymological Taboo

[First, three links:

• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle–solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every one of our clues is explained in detail.]

You would probably not be surprised to learn that we spend a fair amount of time trolling the dictionary. We love the way the dictionary can remind us about secondary meanings of common words, and it’s helpful in figuring out a fair definition for an entry or an entry fragment. And the etymology of a word is always interesting to know about.

But even we have limits. In an earlier post, we mentioned that many US cryptic constructors, as well as some solvers, insist that definition and wordplay should be based on totally distinct etymologies—some would even go so far as to call this a rule. It’s a principle that applies in double definitions, when breaking up long entries into chunks (as in charades or container clues), and in finding a definition that is sufficiently distinct from the word it’s defining.

We generally respect this US convention, as it is based on a reasonable observation: Clueing REASONABLE as REASON + ABLE, or as “Moderate having sound judgment,” is boring. The meanings are just too close for the clue to be interesting. But note that the criterion here is not the technical one of etymological overlap so much as the simpler (and more subjective one) of “Is it interesting?”

These two criteria can be at odds with one another. For example, it turns out that the words “pursue” and “prosecute” share a root, yet we don’t think it would be a crime to use the first in a definition of the other. Conversely, sometimes a word can be broken into pieces that seem to share a root with the word, but don’t. “Alewife,” for example, is a fish whose name has no etymological relation to either ale or wives. A charade clue based on ALE + WIFE would not be in violation of the “etymology taboo”—but it would be pretty dull.

Or take the clue “To show or not to show? (6)” for SCREEN. This clue appeared in The Sunday Telegraph (a British newspaper) in January 2012. Not only do these meanings of SCREEN share an etymology but the two definitions actually refer to exactly the same word in both senses! Yet we think the clue is interesting, and believe that most solvers would agree. Similarly, in a recent Christmas-themed crossword for the National Post in Canada, Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon clued FENCES as “Fights barriers (6)”—using two senses of the answer word that come from the same root.

The bottom line is that the etymological “rule” is bogus. Whether a clue is entertaining is not determined by whether it is etymologically correct. Even a solver who might enjoy looking up an unfamiliar word or meaning might be less interested in pursuing dictionary research purely for the sake of evaluating a clue.

How do you feel about the etymology taboo? Please let us know below, and feel free to share comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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