Wednesday, May 23, 2007



According to the documentary film Wordplay, crossword puzzle geeks measure their progress by timing how fast they complete the NYTimes crossword. I'm gauging my progress by how deep into the week I fill out the puzzle in pen. The NYT crossword increases in difficult from Monday (easy) to Saturday (hard). (Sunday is easier than Saturday, but much larger and longer.)

I've progressed to confidently using pen on Wednesdays and am inking in Thursdays with some frequency.

Why can you get better at solving crossword puzzles? Largely, I think, because you learn the rules of the game as well as a bunch of tricks and repeat words. Let me explain.

The number one rule of the game is that, contrary to the popular belief of people who don't regularly do them, crossword puzzles are not a test of your "word-a-day calendar" obscure word vocabulary. There are usually no more than two or three obscure words out of the 70 or so clues in a 15-by-15 crossword grid (the size of the weekday puzzles). And usually you can get those words by solving the crisscrossing clues.

Crossword puzzles test your vocabulary in a different sense: it helps to know connotations of words, and their less frequently-used definitions.

On a Monday, for example, the clue for "ink" might be "pen filler," whereas on Wednesday it might be "sign a contract."

The way most puzzle writers increase the degree of difficulty of a puzzle is not by going for more obscure vocabulary, but rather by making the clues more vague. Either you don't know what they're driving at or there are multiple answers that would fit.

A four letter word for "got a move on" could be "went," or "fled" or a few other things, and until you crisscross it and get "h" as the first letter you probably wouldn't think of "hied."

Part of the game of crosswords is learning the special language of clues. A question mark at the end of a clue means that the answer, together with the clue, forms a pun. The word "briefly," means abbreviated, not for a short time in history. Thus, "Visa alternative, briefly" (four letters) is not some credit card company that went out of business, but rather an abbreviation -- AMEX.

Note, by the way, that "Visa" is ambiguous: it could have meant permission to enter a country. It's important not to get "tunnel vision" by focusing on one possible meaning of a clue to the exclusion of others.

You have to pay attention to grammar in clues: clues that are present tense verbs mean that the answer will be a present tense verb, etc. Abbreviations in a clue mean the answer is also an abbreviation.

One of the more annoying bits of crossword puzzle grammar is that they will put "-er" at the end of any verbal noun, generating a grammatically correct but linguistically awkward word. Example: "one who makes it happen faster" might be the clue, and the answer: "hastener." Technically a word, perhaps, but no English-speaker would ever say or write "hastener" in this sense.

And so on.

The other way experienced crossword puzzle solvers improve their technique is by learning the dozens of cheat words. Creating a crossword puzzle is a complex set of problems and it turns out that puzzle-writers find that there are certain recurring letter combinations and therefore, certain "crossword puzzle words" -- usually of three or four letters -- that they rely on to solve puzzle writing issues.

As puzzle solvers, you start to see these repeat words and get to the point where you can sniff them out right away, even though they try to vary the clues. Here are a few:
A long passage of time: "aeon" or "eon" (alternate spellings)

A "sea eagle" or coastal bird: "erne" or "ern"

WWII French city (four letters): "St. Lo" every time... it's never "Caen"

Any ruler, potentate, etc. in the Islamic world is always "emir"

A four-letter woman's name is usually "Enid" (if the clue suggest the middle-ages related clue, like "Wife of Geraint"), or "Elsa" (or "Ilsa," if the clue has Ingrid Bergman or Casablanca in it). A three letter woman's name is usually "Ida," "Eva," or "Eve." Note that the clue might the first name of a female celebrity.

"EULA" = "Falkner character Varner," and also a high-tech form contract ("end users license agreement")
"SSR" or "SSRS" = soviet socialist republic(s) (sometimes "CCCP" as the Russian for "USSR")

"gman" and "tman" = "fed," or "govt agent"

Crossword puzzle writers love the word "email," and a mountain in Greece is usually "Etna."

So it's not exactly some great talent for words so much as it is the grind of learning a new language.

Thanks! St. Lo...that's rich.
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