Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

A cavil about crosswords

A couple of weeks ago, B and I rented "Wordplay," the delightful documentary about crossword puzzle enthusiasts, featuring New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz.

In addition to following the scarily talented puzzle geeks, the film interviews such celebrity crossword enthusiasts as Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton and the Indigo Girls. It basically makes you want to do the New York Times crossword puzzle yourself.

Which B and I have done almost every day for the last couple of weeks.

The NY Times Crossword is, of course, famous for its pattern of increasing degree of difficulty, starting with easy on Monday to extremely challenging on Saturday. (Sunday doesn't seem as hard as the end-of-week puzzles, it's just bigger.)

There have been a few interesting movies about word games in the last couple of years. Two about spelling bees (Akeelah and the Bee, and the documentary Spellbound), and Word Wars, which is strikingly similar to to Wordplay except that it deals with Scrabble geeks.

All four of these surprisingly entertaining movies had a major thematic unity: word games really aren't all that much about words. At least not about "words" in the sense of "a large vocabulary." The top Scrabble players have mathematical minds inclined to letter patterns and able to memorize those letter patterns that form word-entries in the official Scrabble dictionary. Yeah, it's in the scrabble dictionary, but you want to say, "okay, you just got 32 points for that word... now, use it in a sentence."

I like crossword puzzle clues that call on you to know interesting words or, even better, that have a clever pun that snaps into place when you get it right. But I guess it's just too hard to make puzzles with lots of words like that, and so you find that crossword puzzles have their own irritating tricks and shortcuts, and you can get good at them by learning the rules of the game.

B and I breeze through the Monday and Tuesday puzzles, filling them in a continuous, machine-like flow of right answers like the puzzle geeks in Word Play (though it takes us 10-20 minutes, compare to their 2-3 minute completion times). By Wednesday, they start to insert clever puns and puzzle themes, and we find ourselves having to fight through sections that stump us. By Thursday we are cheating a lot -- looking stuff up on the internet -- and we can't always finish the Friday and Saturday puzzles even with the cheating.

What disappoints me about crossword puzzles is when they ratchet up the difficulty simply by making clues for easily retrieved words and phrases purposely obscure -- either vague or misleading. By vague, I mean that they give a clue that is one of the more remote definitions of the word. Today, for instance, the clue was "more remote" (5 letters). Answer: "icier." Often, to get these words, you have to disregard connotations, which will mislead you.

Also a tad disappointing is the shameless repetition. As there are Scrabble words, there are also common crossword puzzle words. "Erne" (clue "sea eagle") has appeared 2-3 times in the past couple of weeks, as has "roan" (a type, or color of, horse). Abbreviations of military rank (sgt = sergeant, col = colonel, etc.) are ubiquitous. "Tesh" as in "new age composer John" appears in an ungodly number of puzzles relative to his cultural importance.

It would be sort of fun, though in an extraordinarily geeky way, to come up with crossword answer trivia questions, like this:
Q. What is the most commonly-referenced TV series in crossword puzzle history?
A. Bonanza.
I'm not sure why... I think the double-s in "Hoss" is useful to puzzle makers, as is the "r-n-e" in the first name of the actor who played the dad (Lorne Green).

These quibbles really haven't undermined my enjoyment of the puzzles. But I was truly outraged last Friday. I was totally stumped by this puzzle: a three letter word for "start of a Tennessee Williams title." I immediately assumed "Cat [on a Hot Tin Roof]," but then that didn't work, nor did the others, "The," "Not," "You," "Now," and "Out." (I looked those up after "Cat" failed me.) Nor could I think of a 3-letter word for "basic teaching."

It turns out that the trick to this puzzle was that the words "cat" and "dog" could be used in a single letter square. Thus, "Cat-on" occupied only 3 letter-squares, as did "Dog-ma" for "basic teaching." Nothing on the page indicated this dramatic alteration of the rules of the game. I'd never have figured it out -- not because I'm not clever but because I'd simply never heard of 3-letter words getting to count as a single letter in a crossword puzzle. It wasn't until I cheated by looking at the answer in the Saturday paper. Once you knew that trick, the puzzle was actually quite fun and clever. Grrrr!

UPDATE: Puzzle insiders know this as a "rebus" puzzle. (See Bitch PhD's X-word puzzle blog, Diary of a Crossword Fiend.) Live and learn.

Comments:
Judging from some of your statements, I thought you might find them game below of interest.

http://www.wildwords.us

I intented precisely to try to create a game that really was about real words.

Peter Roizen
 
You are not alone on the three letters in one box shenanigans. It’s a gimmick and extremely frustrating because they don’t even warn you that it might be in the puzzle.
 
boggle is kinda fun too.
 
I love the rebus puzzles! The fun thing is the point when you realize you're dealing with one. If you do enough of these puzzles, you get to the point where you pretty much notice it on the first clue that contains one. Did you do the Sunday puzzle this week? It was crushingly obvious.

Keep doing the puzzles every day and you'll notice that the day that seems about your speed moves. When you start to feel that it doesn't get interesting until Thursday, you'll feel great. Then at some point it gets old and you feel that only Saturday even matters, and you fall out of practice, and then you can't do Saturday too well anymore.

I should get the movie... I knew there was one, but then I couldn't remember the title!
 
Super-late comment, I know—just saw your post in my referral log. Not sure if you'll see this.

I'm not Bitch Ph.D., though I did guest-blog for her in summer 2006. Mostly I blog at my baby, Diary of a Crossword Fiend. I go by Orange online, though my real name's Amy Reynaldo.

If you're still doing the Times crossword, I hope you've grown to enjoy the rebus puzzles. Tip: They're most likely too pop up on Thursdays. Be suspicious of crazy gimmicks on Thursdays!
 
Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]





<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]