Loosening Up

Loosening Up

A more permissive approach could give cryptic crosswords the popularity they deserve.



[First off, links to the current puzzle and solving guidelines]

We’ve been writing a lot on this blog about the world of British cryptics, particularly in contrast with the American scene. There are a couple of interrelated reasons for that. One is that cryptics are more widespread and more popular on the other side of the Atlantic; they’re found in five daily newspapers and in other periodicals. Even people who may not solve them regularly are often familiar with their workings. (It’s no accident that cryptics are often referred to over here as “British-style” crosswords.)

The second reason is that there’s a vibrant and ongoing discussion among British enthusiasts about the art of cryptic clueing—innovative approaches to wordplay, debates over the aesthetic merits of this clue or that. These are the hallmarks of a living and developing culture.

In the United States, by contrast, that conversation is largely absent. Instead, the world of cryptic crosswords is dominated by a rule-bound approach that declares anything not officially sanctioned to be off-limits. This has the virtue of giving solvers a solid framework to operate in, but it also excludes a vast array of possible avenues for pleasure and discovery.

To take just one simple example, a standard requirement in American cryptics is that the wordplay and definition must be etymologically unrelated; double definitions and the separation of long entries into chunks are similarly expected to be based on distinct etymologies. Yet breaking those rules at times has allowed us to sneak in a joke or pun of some sort, which in turn makes for a more entertaining and enjoyable clue.

Furthermore, making a strict adherence to rules take priority over the pleasure principle is hardly a recipe for popular success. (Who knows, the American Puritan tradition may be subtly at work here.) We maintain that a freer approach to cryptics can only help increase their popularity in the United States.

One reason we believe this is that the world of crosswords has been down this path before, with standard American crosswords. Until the advent of a new generation of constructors a couple of decades ago—and a revolution in style spearheaded by Will Shortz at Games magazine and then in the New York Times—standard crosswords were mired in a constricted range of vocabulary and approaches, and had a shrinking and aging audience to go with it.

The decline of the “Celebes ox” (an infamous classic example of the kind of deadly “crosswordese” that used to infest crossword grids), and an infusion of fresh entries, interesting themes and lively clueing helped American crosswords reach a wider, younger and more open-minded audience. There’s no reason why American cryptics couldn’t make a similar transition.

Please share your thoughts below, where you can also post comments, questions, kudos, or complaints about last week’s puzzle or any previous puzzle.

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