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Pithecanthropus, You Say? | 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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Pithecanthropus, You Say?

A common introduction to cryptic crosswords goes something like this: “Standard crosswords are all about testing your vocabulary. Puzzles are made more difficult by the use of more obscure words. Cryptic crosswords, on the other hand, are all about clever wordplay, and are made more challenging by more misleading and devious cluing. In a cryptic crossword, you are guaranteed to know the words you will be expected to enter into the diagram.”

That introduction is less accurate than it used to be. Many standard crosswords nowadays are made challenging in rather the same way as cryptics: through clever wordplay, such as misleading parts of speech, or secondary meanings of words. And on the cryptic side, there are many constructors of challenging puzzles who do not hesitate to include obscure words in their diagrams. Some constructors warn you about entries that are not in all dictionaries. Others limit themselves to the words in a given reference dictionary, but allow any word and any definition from that source. Still others include obscure words without warning.

While solving a cryptic crossword, one of us recently learned that MEPHITIC means “foul-smelling” and that PITHECANTHROPUS (aka JAVA MAN) was a hominid during the Pleistocene. We quite enjoyed learning these words. You, dear reader, may already know these words, and think one of us is an uneducated boor. (That’s why we won’t reveal which one of us it is.)

But that is precisely one point we’d like to make: What is familiar to one person may be obscure to another. And that applies to more than just the breadth of one’s vocabulary— some people don’t know movie stars or athletes, others don’t know mathematics or theater. We try to vary the areas of knowledge we draw from, in the hope that sooner or later we will hit an area that is comfortable for you, the solver. For example, we recently defined DIDO as a pop singer, not a queen of Carthage. If she reappears in a puzzle in a year or two, we’ll probably go the other way.

As constructors of the Nation puzzle, we are perfectly willing to include the occasional obscure word in our diagrams. We don’t do it very often, and when we do it, we try to make the wordplay more transparent. Moreover, we try to only do it with words we like: while we enjoy learning new words, and we trust most solvers of cryptic crosswords agree with us, we know that different words have different appeal to different people. You may like MEPHITIC, but hate PITHECANTHROPUS, or vice versa. We can only go with our own preferences here, and we hope you will welcome the occasional trip to the dictionary or the Internet to confirm an answer.

What do you think about expanding your vocabulary while solving puzzles? Please share 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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