Word Salad | The Nation


Word Salad

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

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What Do You Know?

[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.]

In a previous post, we discussed our willingness to occasionally include a few less-than-common words in our puzzles. We realize not everyone agrees. Some solvers prefer their puzzles to contain only ordinary, everyday words, thank you very much, and such solvers may find that some of their Nation puzzles will remain unfinished. But we consider that the joy of learning something new is one of the many rewards of crossword puzzles.

Of course, one person’s obscurity is another person’s commonplace. For example, Joshua thinks that GILBERTIAN is a normal, everyday word, but Henri had never come across it until Joshua put it in a puzzle. Henri’s INTEGER VARIABLE, conversely, was not familiar to Joshua. In these cases, the meanings were easy enough to guess, but the point remains: we all know and don’t know different things.

And vocabulary is only the tip of the iceberg. A similar issue arises because solvers don’t know the same songs as one another, nor the same celebrities, the same historical facts, the same geographical locations, and so on. Some people know rock ’n’ roll, others know opera, and yet others know neither or both. For every baseball or basketball maven, there is another solver who doesn’t know a pigskin from a puck. We are reminded of this almost every week when one or another of our test solvers makes a comment like “never heard of him,” or “didn’t know the word.”

This is often because of a generational shift: younger solvers are not familiar with the same trivia as we boomers. In fact, we had the same experience when solving Frank Lewis’s puzzles, which contained many references that were common knowledge among people his age, but were new to us.

And yet our test solvers, even the younger ones, are usually able to finish the puzzles. This is largely because in a cryptic crossword, you can make up for your ignorance of a particular area of human knowledge by using the wordplay to get you to the answer. Once you have a guess, you can confirm it in the dictionary, on the web, or just by asking someone who knows more than you do about a given topic.

That said, we do try to be sensitive to the fact that not every solver would be a star contestant on Jeopardy! If an entry is likely to be obscure to many, we try to make the clue straightforward. Here are some examples from our first year:

SAUSALITO  Auto sails around town near the Golden Gate Bridge (9)
SCINTILLA  Trace transgression involving a bit of chicanery up to Afghanistan’s capital (9)
SECONDO  Lease condominium in part, usually the lower part (7)
SIMULACRA  Representations of curve college grad is flipping (9)
STARSKY AND HUTCH  ’70s TV show is celebrity heaven and a home for animals (7,3,5)
SUPERHEAT  Euphrates nuked to get past the boiling point (9)
SYDNEY GREENSTREET  Actor’s tree-lined avenue Down Under (6,11)

Did you ever learn something when solving a puzzle? 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.

Where to Begin?

[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 all clues from past Nation puzzles are explained in detail.]

The solving guidelines that we tout each week at the top of our blog posts are intended to be explanatory, a general answer to the solver’s initial confusion as to what cryptic crosswords are all about. But knowing how to dive in and start solving is another story. Just as in chess, you can’t begin until you know the rules—but even then, it’s not always clear how to make your first moves.

Last week’s post, which made a case for the inclusion of simple clues in any cryptic crossword, points the way toward a solution to this quandary. Any crossword is going to have some clues that are easy places to start solving; the trick is finding them. Here are a few helpful pointers.

• Remember that both the wordplay and the definition will independently offer a path to the solution—and it doesn’t matter which path you take. For some clues, it’s easier to let the wordplay lead you to the solution; for others, it’s easier to be guided by the definition and use the wordplay after the fact to confirm your answer. Some beginners feel that the latter approach is “cheating,” but rest assured that it is an approach all cryptic solvers use.

• If you’re looking for the definition part of the clue, keep in mind this handy rule: because the two parts of a cryptic clue are distinct and side-by-side, the definition will always come either at the beginning or end of the clue. You can’t be sure where, and of course you can’t be sure how long the definition will be; but either end of the clue is the place to look for the definition.

• In the search for simple clues, you might first look for hidden-word clues, because the answer to those is sitting in plain sight. Hidden words are indicated by phrases like “can be found in,” “ingredient of,” “in the grip of,” and the like.

• Most solvers agree that the next easiest clues to spot are those involving a single anagram of the entire answer. They’re not necessarily the easiest to solve, because anagramming is often a challenge, especially for longer entries. But anagram clues have two giveaway features.

For one thing, the indicator—the part of the clue that tells you what kind of cryptic wordplay you’re dealing with—is often easy to identify. When you see a clue whose surface involves disorder, drunkenness, rearrangement, misfortune, unexpectedness, or anything along those lines, it’s a good bet you’re dealing with an anagram.

Even more revealing is a word or sequence of words with the same number of letters as the answer, especially in longer clues. This is very likely to be the “anagram fodder,” the source of letters to be anagrammed.

• Similarly, phonetic clues and reversal clues have fairly blatant indicators: anything to do with hearing or speaking for the former, anything connected with backwardness (or, in Down clues, ascent) for the latter.

• A clue that involves only one kind of wordplay (anagram, charade, container, etc.) is easier to solve than one that combines multiple techniques. The simplest way to improve your chances of finding one like that is to start with the shorter clues.

Even with all these suggestions, learning to solve cryptic crosswords is not easy. There is no shame at all in seeking help, whether from a human or a machine. We’ll discuss this in a future post.

Got any other helpful hints for beginners? Please share them 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.

In Defense of Simplicity

[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 all clues from past Nation puzzles are explained in detail.]

Every now and again—perhaps once or twice per puzzle—we write a clue that’s so easy to crack that our first response is to give it the stink-eye. “Well, that’s pretty obvious,” one of us will say to the other. “Where’s the sport? What kind of challenge is that?”

Then we reconsider, because the truth is that even bone-simple clues have a place in a good puzzle. For that matter, our ideal is to make sure that each puzzle is as varied as possible—covering a full range of clue types, balancing long, intricate constructions with straightforward clues, and encompassing every level of difficulty.

Why does it take an effort of will to include the easy ones? Because for us, there’s more fun in writing clues that are daunting, devilish and deceptive. That’s the nature of this enterprise, after all: We pose a challenge, and solvers try to rise to it. We’re never more content than when we’re cooking up fiendish ways to trick solvers.

But a puzzle made up of nothing but tough clues wouldn’t be much fun (at least, not for most solvers). It’s helpful to give solvers a way in—a few easy-to-parse, uncomplicated clues that can give them a leg up on the more dastardly stuff elsewhere. Plus, solvers come to puzzles with varying degrees of skill and experience, so a clue that seems transparent to a seasoned veteran might be at just the right level for a newbie.

What are the easiest clue types? Probably the easiest is an anagram clue in which the anagram fodder (the words containing the letters to be rearranged) aren’t especially well hidden. For instance:
DECOR  Design heretical credo (5)
IMPUTE  Assign uptime unfairly (6)
Also easy are double-definition clues that are stripped to their minimal two words, like these:
FINE  Swell penalty (4)
STERN  Inflexible back (5)
And some clues are easy just because they have so few component parts.
LARK  Bird left boat (4)
SLAP  Strike friends on the way back (4)


None of these clues have the elegance or panache of a multi-part container-cum-reversal lollapalooza. But they too have an important role to play in the microcosm that is a well-balanced puzzle.

Please share 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.

Cryptically, Stephen Sondheim

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nationpuzzle–solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints, and where every clue is explained in detail on the Monday following the online publication of the puzzle.]

Yes, Stephen Sondheim is a giant in the musical theater. But what’s less widely known is that he was second only to Frank Lewis in bringing cryptic crosswords to the United States. Moreover, he was the first to publish variety, bar-diagram cryptics (such as our Puzzle #3218). His puzzles appeared in New York magazine in 1968-69. In fact, the first three were reprinted recently to celebrate the magazine’s forty-year anniversary (get those PDFs here).

Of course, cryptic aficionados are well aware of that history. They will be quick to point out that wordplay is sometimes a significant ingredient in Sondheim lyrics. And what about the fact that SONDHEIM is an anagram of HEDONISM! Here is a clue from our puzzle #3229: Composer with spouse’s child eating chicken—he is in shadowy surroundings (7,8)

All this serves to introduce Mark Halpin, a theater designer, a brilliantly versatile puzzle creator and one of our Nation puzzle test solvers. He has also created many Sondheim-themed cryptic crosswords for The Sondheim Review. We decided to interview Mark (whom we know as Zebraboy in the National Puzzlers’ League) about this project of his. See below for links to the puzzles themselves.

How did you get started making cryptic crosswords?

Cryptic crosswords have long been my favorite type of puzzle to solve. As with normal crosswords, the solving experience is consistently engaging throughout, with every clue being sort of its own mini-puzzle. A good variety cryptic adds to that another level of novelty and discovery as the solver figures out the particular gimmicks the constructor has woven into the puzzle. The Sondheim puzzles that you mention, in fact, were among those that made me fall in love with cryptics and suggested the degree of playfulness that could be incorporated into the type. So I jumped at the first chance I had to work on a cryptic. My friend Darren Rigby had created a brilliant grid for a variety cryptic for an NPL-related publication, and he invited me to do all of the cluing for the grid. I had a lot of fun doing it, and he seemed to like the results, so I’ve enjoyed working on cryptics ever since.

What led you to the idea of a series of Sondheim-themed puzzles?

A few years ago The Sondheim Review, for which I’d already written an article or two, did a special issue commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story. Since they were doing all kinds of celebratory stuff, and given Sondheim’s well-known love of games and puzzles, it struck me that a cryptic themed around the show would be a nice fit. Rick Pender, the TSR editor, liked the idea well enough that we decided to make it a regular feature of the magazine. The next issue was primarily about Sunday in the Park with George, so I based a puzzle on that, and after that it just seemed like a natural idea to do a puzzle per show, though the magazine didn’t necessarily have a similar focus each issue.

You’ve already created twenty Sondheim-themed cryptics. Is there enough raw material in his oeuvre to keep this project going indefinitely?

Well, I’ve run out of shows for the one-show-per-puzzle series. But Sondheim’s work contains so much distinctive material that if I continue basing puzzles on individual songs, I think I have a lot to work with there. Plus there are movies, plays, TV writing etc. that fall outside his Broadway material.

Do you know if Sondheim himself knows about your puzzles, and if so, whether he solves them?

I wondered that myself for a long while! Then out of the blue, right before Christmas in 2008, I got an e-mail from him where he took the trouble to let me know how much he enjoyed the puzzles. As you might imagine, that just blew my mind. I’d been going through a bit of a blue period at the time, but it turns out that having your own work described as “wonderfully ingenious” by Stephen freaking Sondheim is quite the tonic. Since then we’ve corresponded from time to time about the cryptics and other puzzle things, and I was lucky enough to get together with him in person for drinks and conversation one evening earlier this year.

Have you ever designed a set for a Sondheim musical?

Only twice: a small production of Passion, and a full-scale production of Merrily We Roll Along that’s viewable on my website. I’d love to design Sweeney Todd sometime, and Into The Woods probably tops my list of shows I haven’t designed that I’d like to.

Tell us about your construction process.

It’s funny: in many ways I find that my process for constructing puzzles is the same as my process for designing a set, or for writing a song for that matter. I always start with the end effect, or the payoff. With a set it’s some window into the world of the play; with a puzzle it may be some particular verbal surprise or punch line. A lot of time and thought goes into designing the mechanical structure that will ultimately deliver the intended effect. After that comes the fun part: designing all the details that disguise the mechanical structure so that the whole thing hopefully feels effortless and graceful. I’d like the solver to be having an entertaining experience without being aware of all the contrivances involved, so that when the payoff finally comes it feels like a nice surprise, not something labored.

Give us a few favorite clues from your puzzles.

In terms of being short and sweet, my favorite might be this &lit. clue: Little animal Mary blithely leads! (4) Otherwise, some of my favorite clues are those that use certain elements in a playful sense that isn’t obvious at first reading. Here are a few of those:
   Person suspected at first has criminal charge (12)
   Is vessel getting an overhaul? (6)
   …in hindsight, empty gallery is old-fashioned and dull (6)

Answers and explanations:
LAMB (initial letters. &lit); MANSLAUGHTER (man + s[uspected] + laughter [“ha”s]); SELVES (anagram of “vessel‚” definition = “I”); STODGY (“dots” reversed + g[aller]y)


It was my pleasure!

Download Mark Halpin’s Sondheim-themed puzzles here

Are there Sondheim fans among Nation puzzle solvers? Let us know below, and feel free to share comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Georges Perec on Crosswords

[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 great detail.]

In a previous post we quoted the late French writer Georges Perec on puzzles in general. Perec was also a crossword constructor (in French, naturally), and he wrote an interesting essay about that. (See “Thoughts on the Art and Technique of Crossing Words,” by Georges Perec. An annotated translation, by Henri Picciotto and Arthur Schulman in The Believer, September 2006.)

That essay’s introductory paragraphs are perhaps the best summary of the task that faces us every week when we create puzzles for The Nation:

The construction of a crossword consists of two operations that are quite different, and in the end perfectly independent of each other. The first is the filling of the diagram; the second is the search for definitions.

The filling of the diagram is a tedious, meticulous, maniacal task, a sort of letter-based arithmetic where all that matters is that words have this or that length, and that their juxtapositions reveal groupings that are compatible with the perpendicular construction of other words; it is a system of primary constraints where the letter is omnipresent, but where language is absent. Contrariwise, the search for definitions is fluid, intangible work, a stroll in the land of words, intended to uncover, in the imprecise neighborhood that constitutes the definition of a word, the fragile and unique location where it will be simultaneously revealed and hidden. The two operations imply mental faculties that could almost seem contradictory: in the first, one proceeds by trial and error, starting over twenty or thirty times a grid that one always deems less than perfect; in the second, one favors intuition, fortuitous finds, sudden illumination; the first is done at one’s table, with obstinacy and tenacity, groping, counting, erasing; the other is rather done at any hour of day or night, without thinking about it, strolling, letting one’s attention float freely in the wake of the thousand and one associations evoked by this or that word.

As it turns out, the introduction of the computer has not changed this state of affairs. We use software and word lists to help us fill the diagram (more on this in a future post), but that does not change the obsessive nature of that phase. Moreover, it provides very little help in the wandering that is required for the writing of the clues.

Here is Perec on definitions:

For the definition to start to function, there must be ambiguity. The simplest method, in a sense the second degree of the definition, consists in representing the word to be found (the signified) by a signifier that usually represents something else.

What, in the end, characterizes a good crossword definition, is that its solution is obvious, as obvious as the problem had seemed insoluble as long as it was not solved. Once the solution is found, one realizes that it was very precisely stated in the very text of the definition, but one did not know how to see it, the whole problem being to see in an other way.

The same applies to cryptic clues. Of course, puzzles exist at various levels of difficulty, and it does sometimes happen that one cannot figure out how a given clue works, even knowing the answer. But we are one step ahead of Perec and his contemporaries: We have the Internet! See the link at the top of this article to see full explanations of any clue of ours that you don’t understand.

What makes a good clue? Share your thoughts, as well as comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Political Puzzling

[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 all clues from past Nation puzzles are explained in detail.]

Earlier this week, the puzzle constructor Matt Gaffney wrote a witty article for Politico, examining the upcoming presidential election from a cruciverbal perspective. Matt was happy to leave policy matters to others; for him, the relevant question was which candidate was likely to bequeath the nation’s crossword constructors names whose patterns of vowels and consonants made them puzzle fodder. First daughters MALIA and SASHA Obama, for example, are crossword godsends, to which only TAGG Romney, of all the Republican candidate’s sons, comes close. Matt would also have preferred John THUNE or Marco RUBIO as Romney’s running mate, rather than the already easy-to-clue RYAN. And so on.

A big part of the joke here was the fact that crossword puzzles in general—as befits a form of entertainment designed to appeal to the widest possible audience—are expected to remain scrupulously neutral. It was OK for a constructor to weigh in on the election, as long as he did it on purely non-political grounds.

Conversely, one of the great pleasures of contributing crosswords to The Nation has been the freedom we’ve felt to let our political opinions seep into the puzzles. It’s not something we’ve done too often—that would quickly get tiresome—but it’s good to feel that clues evincing a left-wing point of view, which would certainly get shot down in other venues, are perfectly OK here.

The first couple of times we wrote a clue with a political angle, it felt a bit risqué. We would ask ourselves, or our test-solvers would ask us, “Is that really allowed?” And the answer would always come back, “If not in The Nation, then where?”

Often, an ostensibly political clue is really just a matter of surface meaning, making use of helpful names or terms from the political scene without any genuine content behind it. Here are a couple of examples from recent puzzles:
INPUT  Putin’s terrible advice (5)
CALAIS  Scalia drunk with French port (6)
LEFT-WINGER  In Paris, the franc involves sharp pain for Sarkozy opponent, in all likelihood (4-6)

Some clues have both a political slant and plausible deniability, as in this clue we wrote around the time of the Wisconsin showdown between Governor Scott Walker and the state’s public-sector unions:
INTENDANT  Governor is mean when up against worker, e.g. (9)

or these:
INHALER  Popular, healthy Republican? Bill Clinton claimed he was not one (7)
PRESIDENT  Obama is here, concealing birth certificate, perhaps (9)
RUSES  Republican employs deceptive practices (5)
YANKS  Americans can be jerks (5)

But every now and then we include a clue that is explicitly political in its outlook.
BOB DOLE  Republican politician to cut welfare (3,4)
ELECTRON  ”Vote for Reagan”—it’s got a negative charge (8)
NAFTA  Dubious Clinton achievement: pushing back at supporter (5)
OIL  The actual origins of Operation Iraqi Liberty? (3)
PEPPERONI It might come from a pig: kind of spray on individual’s face (9)

And our proudest accomplishment yet in this category (in a Down clue):
ROMNEY  Questionable money supports Republican presidential candidate (6)

Do you have any favorite examples of political puzzling, either here or elsewhere? Please share your thoughts below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Lit Parade

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation-puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

In our introduction to cryptic crosswords and again in our blog post “Breaching the Firewall,” we discussed the concept of the &lit. clue. “&lit.” is short for “and literally so,” and it describes cryptic clues in which the definition and the wordplay are coterminous (is this a great word, or what?). The whole clue is the wordplay, and the whole clue is the definition.

To quote ourselves: “These are the triple toe loops of the cryptic world: difficult to execute, flashy and impressive when done right. By convention, they’re generally flagged with a final exclamation point.” In fact, that is not a universal convention. Many, perhaps most, British constructors do not use the exclamation point, leaving the discovery that a clue is an &lit. to the solver—and what a lovely discovery it is when you come across one!

Here in the United States, the exclamation point is well established, but the undisputed royal couple of US cryptics (Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon) have not been using it for a few years now. They think it makes the constructor look vain. With characteristic humility, they have replaced it with a question mark. We have stuck with the US majority on this—at least so far—and still use the exclamation point to crow about our &lits. (Of course, in our puzzles and elsewhere, there are times where an exclamation point is just an exclamation point.)

Consider the rest of this post an extended boasting session: we’ll share a few of our favorite &lits from Year 1 of our tenure as The Nation’s puzzle purveyors.

ABSENTEES  A contest’s mailed-in participants!? (9)

AU PAIRS  Aides originating at university near Paris, perhaps! (2,5)

CURBED  A dog should be, near part of a garden! (6)

DETOURS  Initially different, roundabout routes! (7)

FIVE  One-fourth of four, plus four, on its face, equals …! (4)

HALO  Non-human character circle! (4)

HYENA  Laughter urge fills it! (5)

LOLL  Primarily, lay (or lie) lazily! (4)

LUDICROUS  Ridiculous, absurd, lacking one bit of intelligence! (9)

PAST  Father’s time! (4)

SEDER  In which prophet takes a bit of drink! (5)

STRIVED  Tried, vs. challenging and treacherous core of adversity!! (7)

Do you have favorite &lits? Please share, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Counting Words

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

One of the things that crossword constructors often ponder is what’s called “word count”—the total number of words, across or down, that appear in a given grid. Because crossword grids tend to be of a uniform size (most commonly 15x15 squares), a grid’s word count is a simple and consistent metric for how densely packed it is: the lower the word count, the more difficult a construction feat the setter has pulled off. Hang around the right chatrooms or streetcorners and you’ll sometimes hear crossworders use the phrase “low word count grid” in tones of quiet admiration.

Like so many aspects of a craft, this is one of those things that only practitioners think about consciously, but that can affect the experience of the consumer (in this case, the solver). Solvers aren’t likely to tally up the number of entries in a grid, but they do notice the effects of a low word count, including longer entries (average word length varies inversely with the word count) and a grid with fewer isolated sections.

In our puzzles for The Nation, we think less about word count than most constructors of standard crosswords, because our grid patterns are fairly standardized. A 15x15 grid with black squares has eight rows and eight columns, nearly every one of which contains two words; typically we’ll try to include one symmetrical pair of long entries (between eleven and fifteen letters) that fill a row or column by themselves. The result is a word count of either thirty or thirty-two, and an average word length of seven or greater. We’ve rarely diverged from that.

So it was not without a little trepidation that we embarked on Puzzle #3251. The motivating idea there was to have each clue begin with a different letter, in order. The catch was that this meant an ultra-low word count of twenty-six. Our initial thought was that we might have to reduce the grid to 13x13, but first we gave it a shot on a full-sized grid—and the results turned out to be challenging but doable.

Still, there’s no question that that puzzle had an unusual grid pattern in comparison to anything else we’ve published here. It included four fifteen-letter entries spanning the grid, as well as a pair of thirteens. The other constraints were the inclusion of ACROSTIC at the bottom of the grid, to reveal the theme, and making sure that the third-to-last entry could be clued beginning with an X (we went with CYRUS, the grandfather of Xerxes).

In other words, before it was a puzzle for you, it was a puzzle for us!

Did the low word count in this puzzle register during solving? Please share your thoughts below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

Georges Perec on Puzzles

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

Writing cryptic clues is a form of constrained writing. To begin with, for each entry, one has to include both definition and wordplay—but not every sort of wordplay works for every entry! Most words, for example, do not yield anything intelligible if read backwards, many do not make for suitable anagrams, and so on. Then, once some form of wordplay has been found, one still needs to come up with a way to combine it with the definition in a way that has a plausible surface reading. These and other constraints are what make clue writing an interesting puzzle for the constructor.

Some of the most sustained exploration of the use of constraints in literature has come from the writers’ group Oulipo (the name is a bigram acronym for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, or “workshop of potential literature”). The group counts among its members the Italian novelist Italo Calvino and the American writer Harry Mathews, but most participants have been French. One prominent Oulipian was the French novelist Georges Perec (1936–82), who in addition to his literary work was a prolific constructor of crossword puzzles (about which we will have more to say in a future post). Perec wrote a lengthy novel (La Disparition, translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void) that never used the letter E—then followed up with a novella (Les Revenentes, translated by Ian Monk as The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex), in which the only vowel used was E. He also constructed a palindrome of 1247 words (5,566 letters) which, unsurprisingly, has not been translated.

Perec’s masterwork, Life A User’s Manual, is built upon a massively intricate formal framework using multiple constraining schemes, and tells many interlocking stories. The backbone of the main narrative involves jigsaw puzzles. Perec writes: “The art of jigsaw puzzling begins with wooden puzzles cut by hand, whose maker undertakes to ask himself all the questions the player will have to solve, and, instead of allowing chance to cover his tracks, aims to replace it with cunning, trickery, and subterfuge. All the elements occurring in the image to be reassembled—this armchair covered in gold brocade, that three-pointed black hat with its rather ruined black plume, or that silver-braided bright yellow livery—serve by design as points of departure for trails that lead to false information.… From this, one can make a deduction which is quite certainly the ultimate truth of jigsaw puzzles: despite appearances, puzzling is not a solitary game: every move the puzzler makes, the puzzle-maker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.”

This is of course true of puzzles of all types. When you solve our crossword, we are there with you, engaged in a sort of dialogue. When writing clues, we imagine how you might respond to a particular word or phrase, and lay traps accordingly. When you see through our schemes, you get beneath the surface of the clue, and unpack the way our minds work. Paradoxically, the friendly struggle we are engaged in is a collaboration!

Please share your thoughts on literary and cruciverbal constraints below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

The War Against Cliché

[First, three links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where you can ask for and offer hints.]

In a brilliant routine from the 1970s, comedian Albert Brooks imagines himself as a writer from the golden age of radio, struggling to come up with a script for that evening’s broadcast. He starts on familiar ground—“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen”—but worries that that opening might be a cliché. “Nah, can’t be,” he assures himself. “After all, everybody else uses it.”

Such is the allure and the danger of clichés. You don’t want to retread ground that countless others have covered before you, yet the temptation to do so is often strong. And in the world of crosswords, specific grid entries and clueing strategies become clichés in the first place for good reasons—because they offer ways to deal with recurrent problems. Thus the reliance in standard crosswords on words and names (OLIO, ERLE Stanley Gardner, Brian ENO, etc.) whose patterns of vowels and consonants meet a particular configuration. (This is not a new issue, incidentally, as this 1927 cartoon makes clear.)

The world of cryptics has its own clichés as well, wordplay strategies that threaten to recur a little too often. Here are a few examples:

• “amid the grass” to clue the many words that begin with RE- and end with -ED
• “Kennedy” for the times when an entry ends in -TED, because even posthumously he’s still the most famous Ted
• “flower” to refer to a river (because it flows—this was clever the first few dozen times, but soon lost its appeal)
• “doctor,” “tailor,” and “engineer” as anagram indicators
• “losing one’s head” to clue, well, a word beheadment
• “club” for Y or “university” for U

Naturally, not even the most conscientious constructor could dodge these and their fellows all the time. And in truth, there are occasions when a putative cliché is just what a clue needs. For example, we have no regrets about this clue from Puzzle #3236:
FLAGELLATED 13 Jack Fitzgerald Kennedy is whipped (11)

But when all is said and done, clichés are the kiss of death to an otherwise out-of-this-world puzzle. So we go the extra mile and avoid them like the plague.

Got any candidates for the list of overused cryptic locutions? Please share your nominations below, along with comments, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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