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Word Salad

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

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Monkey Puzzle Tree

Araucaria (John Graham)

John Graham, who died on November 26, at age 92, was perhaps the most popular cryptic crossword constructor in the world. He created puzzles for The Guardian as Araucaria, which is the Latin name of the monkey puzzle tree. In the Financial Times, he was Cinephile, an anagram of Chile Pine, which is another name for the same tree. He announced he had cancer in a cryptic crossword a year ago, and his last puzzle included the phrase TIME TO GO.

He was a minister in the Church of England, and a man of the left who would not contribute puzzles to Murdoch-owned newspapers. Henri solved a few of his puzzles over many years when visiting relatives in the UK, and remembers one puzzle whose theme was the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa—not something one would find in most US cryptics.

Cryptic crosswords, of course, are much, much more popular in the UK, where five different newspapers offer cryptic crosswords daily. Perhaps because of this broad audience, there are different styles among British constructors. (Or perhaps the causation goes the other way?) Araucaria was a leading exponent of a relatively easy-going style, perhaps best summarized in this quote: “Any clue is legitimate which leads, by whatever route, to an answer which, 80 per cent of the time, can be known to be correct as soon as it appears to the mind” (quoted in his obituary in the Financial Times).

His editor at The Guardian wrote:

Araucaria once articulated his difference with extreme Ximeneans thus. To clue the word CAIN (who killed Abel) his device might be to insert an “I” into “CAN,” which has the slang meaning of “prison”. His clue might be: “Having committed a murder, I am in prison.” A Ximenean would object that the “definition” in the clue for Cain is unfair, because “Cain” is a noun and “Having committed a murder” is not; and, because here “I” is a letter of the alphabet and not a personal pronoun, it should be followed grammatically by “is” not “am.” So a strict Ximenean would require some clue like: “Being guilty of murder, I must be put in prison.” In Araucaria’s view, Guardian solvers would find that his clue was fair—and better. Most of them were on his side.

Ximeneans describe their cluing principles as “square dealing.” In the United States, Frank Lewis was the main constructor who did not subscribe to square-dealing orthodoxy, although Richard Maltby arguably also falls in that category (which did not prevent either of them from having a loyal following). As far as we know, everyone else on this side of the pond writes puzzles from a Ximenean perspective—as do we. For the most part, we share with the British Ximeneans and with our US colleagues a concern for grammatical correctness and an insistence that cryptic readings should work exactly as written. But this does not prevent us as solvers from enjoying a wide range of styles, or as constructors from loosening the reins once in a while. We realize that solving every clue with an eye to 100 percent correctness is part of the fun for many solvers, but Araucaria’s prodigious output and popularity are evidence that there are other ways to enjoy cryptic crosswords.

How about you? Do you enjoy dissecting every clue, or are you just hoping to fill the diagram? 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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