Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.
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In a recent post we discussed using names in clues. Of course, names may also appear in the diagram, which raises more delicate concerns. Solver Alwyn Eades writes:
I concede that setting a cryptic crossword is very hard, especially when it is for a weekly, rather than one which is to be solved in a day. So I am in admiration of Kosman and Picciotto. Nonetheless, I feel that they have got steadily further off track. Too many of their clues now are not verbal games but tests of general knowledge. That is not what I want from a puzzle; I could play Trivial Pursuit for that. I am particularly concerned that the knowledge required (I would imagine, not being young myself) is unlikely to be within the memories of young people (Sam Spade, Satchmo—to give examples from the last two weeks). Surely the last thing the Nation needs is to discourage young readers.
In theory, we certainly agree with Mr. Eades that the point of cryptic crosswords is wordplay, and not tests of general knowledge. What makes this difficult to carry out in practice is that words have meanings, and not all solvers share the same cultural lexicon.
As solvers, we encountered this all the time in Frank Lewis’s puzzles. Here is one example: h expected his solvers to know that “ties pay the dealer” is a coherent phrase. We were able to solve the corresponding clue because the wordplay told us to anagram “leader.” We would have been completely in the dark about why that was correct, if it weren’t for a friend who is a Gilbert and Sullivan expert. (The phrase appears in Iolanthe.) A subsequent Web search revealed that this is the standard phrasing of a blackjack rule. Certainly gamblers would know this, but how many Nation solvers are gamblers? Still, we were not bitter about it: we appreciated the opportunity to learn something new.
Satchmo and Sam Spade are easy to confirm by asking a friend or a search engine. The key for us as constructors of the Nation puzzle is that if an entry may be unfamiliar to many, the wordplay for it should be straightforward. We can’t guarantee we’ll always get that balance right, of course, but we try. And we hope that a youngster who has never heard of Louis Armstrong but has to enter an anagram of STOMACH in a diagram given S_T_H_O will be able to sort it out by trying to get the A, C, and M into the word in a way that makes it pronounceable.
Mr. Eades is not the first to complain about our choice of cultural references. People have objected to mentions of pop music, sports and mathematics, to name three areas of human knowledge we have drawn from. All we can do is vary the references, so that we expand everyone’s horizons equally. (Or offend everyone equally!) What we cannot do is limit ourselves to a lowest-common-denominator vocabulary, as that would make the puzzle boring for The Nation’s highly literate readership.
This week’s cluing challenge: Can you to come up with a cryptic clue for HORIZONS? Please share here. 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 four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle.