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Roasting Chestnuts | 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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Roasting Chestnuts

Every once in a while, as we’re filling a puzzle grid or writing clues, one of us will put in an entry that makes the other one look askance. “Well, that’s kind of a chestnut,” he’ll say about a particular piece of wordplay.

And it’s true: For all the incalculable wealth and versatility of the English language, it’s just not possible to make every piece of wordplay be something brand-new and original. Certain puns, certain anagrams and certain pieces of word manipulation tend to call out to the constructor and beg for inclusion. And when they do, we generally pay heed to their cries.

Note that we’re not talking here about clichés—the overused, tired clueing strategies that get recycled from one puzzle to the next because they fit the needs of a constructor. Rather, what we’re talking about are pieces of enjoyable or clever wordplay that are no longer fresh discoveries.

At least, they’re not discoveries for everyone. But the reason we are generally not fazed by the charge of chestnuttery is always the same: For any given chestnut, there’s always a solver who’s encountering it for the first time. Or even a constructor.

The entry at 1-Across in this week’s puzzle is a case in point. It’s a joke that been used now and again in various puzzling contexts over the years, but it retains the power to amuse. One of us (never mind which) put it into this week’s grid with a slightly apologetic note: “I know it’s an oldie, but it’ll be new to someone.” The other replied: “It was new to me.”

Here are a few examples of wordplay chestnuts that have managed to find their way into the Nation puzzle:
   ASTRONOMER  Moon starer, possibly! (10)
   BRITNEY SPEARS  Presbyterians converted pop star (7,6)
   DECIMAL POINT  Remarkably, I’m a pencil dot! (7,5)
   MOUNT ST. HELENS  Prepares the telescope to find a volcano (5,2,6)
   OSLO  City in Czechoslovakia (4)
   PULITZER PRIZE  Talking chicken gets unexpected recognition (8,5)

Do you have any examples of chestnuts that made you sigh with exasperation? For that matter, do you know why a familiar old joke or story is called a chestnut? Please weigh in here, along with any quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen.

And here are 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.

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