Obsession Stories: Karen Bruce and Crosswords

February 5, 2018
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For this series, we reach out to a member of the department who has a very particular obsession and ask them to share it with the world. In this edition, Lecturer Karen Bruce shares her fascination with crosswords.

My obsession is cryptic.

To understand it, you need to be able to solve a clue: “Angry utterance is a puzzle to many people.” The answer is nine letters.

Let me walk you through it if you haven’t solved it already. The answer depends on recognizing pairs of synonyms. Angry, cross. Utterance, word. Put them together, and you get the solution: a “CROSSWORD.”

Perhaps appropriately, the origins of the crossword puzzle are disputed. The majority view, however, is that the first modern crossword was created by the journalist Arthur Wynne and published by the New York World in 1913. An immigrant from England to America, Wynne created a diamond-shaped grid with no black squares, and that (perhaps optimistically, perhaps prophetically) had the word “fun” emblazoned across the top. Readers agreed with Wynne’s assessment of his puzzle. Crosswords became a regular feature in the New York World and were soon imitated by the papers’ competitors, although The New York Times condemned them as a “sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern “and “a primitive form of mental exercise” (17 November 1924).

It is then ironic that, for most Americans, crosswords have since become synonymous with The New York Times’ well-known puzzles, which are obtained from a wide variety of constructors (Patrick Berry and K. Austin Collins are the best) and edited by the inimitable Will Shortz. These puzzles typically trade in definitions: you are given a description of, for instance, a person, place, text or object, and are required to work out what it is referring to. They frequently have a theme of some sort, which unites the longest answers on the grid. For instance, they may have shared initials (AUXILIARY VERB, ACTIVE VOLCANOES, AFRICAN VIOLET), they may have the same word embedded within them (CONTRAVENE, BRAVE NEW WORLD, COBRA VENOM), or they may be members of a category (BLIND DATE, TOP BANANA, ADAMS APPLE). Working out the theme is often vital to filling the grid.

The New York Times crosswords famously get harder across the week so that Mondays are gentle strolls through straightforward clues and the most general of knowledge, while Saturdays are arduous treks through twisty, devious wording and obscure facts. I started doing the The New York Times' crossword every morning three years ago, and I count it as one of my greatest accomplishments that I can now mostly do Friday's without the help of Google. Conquering Saturday's remains a shimmering hope in the distance.

Much of this improvement has to do with my growing skill in crosswordese, a set of words that are widely used by constructors to make grids work, but that rarely occur in my day-to-day conversation. Crosswordese is filled with helpful vowels and common consonants (such as t’s and s’s), which are able to serve as easy points of connection between words. It is delightfully obscure in almost cases. It only recognizes Latin numerals. It remembers the existence of “ETUI,” “APSE” and “NAVE,” “OLIO” and “OLEO,” even “ARETE.” It celebrates “ASTA”, a fox terrier that appeared in 1930s movies; “ERLE” Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason; “ISAO” Aoki, the Japanese golfer; and, more than anyone else, “ESAI” Morales of NYPD Blue and Battlestar Galactica fame. Their names’ helpful combination of vowels and consonants will ensure them crossword immortality, even if their personal accomplishments are forgotten by members of their own field. In some cases, crosswordese can even be beautiful and poetic: dawns are often “EOAN,” Ireland is always “ERIN,” and a sea-eagle is an “ERNE.”

Although I enjoy The New York Times' crosswords, my real passion is the cryptic crossword, a British variant that developed in the 1930s. According to Alan Connor, Fleet Street came up with the cryptic crossword after years of censuring the more straightforward American version. They realized that puzzles were good for circulation, but, in the most bizarrely snobbish move ever, felt that asking broadsheet readers to supply answers to definitions was vulgar and low-brow. Instead, they took inspiration from the Sphinx and turned each clue into a tiny riddle, which needed to be solved in a variety of means.

Each clue normally contains a cryptic portion and a hint to its plain meaning. The easiest clues, of course, are anagrams. For instance, take “fixing their air-con, a master of hot air” (11). Anagrams almost always provide some clue that you need to rearrange words by hinting at disorder or disarray. In this case, “fixing” suggests that some letters are in the wrong order, and you need to sort them out again. If you rearrange “their air-con,” you get “RHETORICIAN,” who, completely unfairly, is characterized as “a master of hot air”. In a similar category are words-within-words, which require you to reanalyze the letters in a sequence. For instance, “it’s not every season that brings some new interest” (6) hides the season “WINTER” within the clause “new interest.”

Perhaps the hardest clues–the clues that require initiation into the art of the cryptic crossword by a knowledgable relative or friend–are containers, which require you to fold one or more words inside another. For instance, take the fabulous clue “Girl rings friend and mum in holiday location” (3, 6). The answer is “LAS PALMAS,” but the solver has to take a circuitous route to arrive at that popular holiday destination. Girl gives us “lass,” friend gives us “pal,” and mum gives us “ma.” By including the word “ring,” the clue lets us know that we are dealing with a container. If we allow “lass” to encircle “pal” and “ma,” we get LAS-PAL-MA-S, and our solution.

Between them, you find clues that ask you to decipher cryptic definitions, puns or other plays on words. One of my favorites from recent weeks was “Earth reduced to dust?” (6). The answer is “GROUND,” which is a synonym for both “earth” and “reduced to dust.” I also enjoyed “paradoxically, a spirited community” (5, 4), which you may have guessed is a “GHOST TOWN”. There are other varieties of clues as well, but part of the pleasure of solving a cryptic crossword is discovering the diverse range of strategies that constructors use to mask the solutions.

In addition, the British cryptic crossword has an irreverant, silly streak, which is often missing from its American counterpart. All puzzles in The New York Times have to pass the so-called “breakfast test,” i.e. none of the answers should make you spew your coffee or cornflakes in shock or horror. The British papers have no such qualms. Take the blunt “push out bowel movement” (5), where the answer is “ELBOW.” You can imagine the compiler grinning cheekily and thinking the solver had better “know their arse from their elbow.” Recent crosswords have engaged with British and American politics and commented on, for instance, the STABLE GENIUS of certain world leaders in a sly fashion.

So, although I understand why the cryptic crossword might seem fussy and abstruse to many people, I love the experience of solving it. It provides me with at least twenty miniature riddles each morning and the delight that comes with solving them. For me, nothing compares to the moment of discovery when I have been puzzling over a cryptic phrase for several minutes, and I suddenly work out the angle that allows me to determine the solution. As the game designer Jane McGonigal would put it, it’s a moment of pure fiero, in which you’ve overcome an obstacle and achieved a win. And it’s available every single morning for the price of a newspaper.

To read more about crosswords, I recommend:

  • Bacilieri, Paolo. Fun: Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords. London: Self-Made Hero, 2017.
  • Balfour, Sandy. Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8): A Memoir of Love, Exile, and Crosswords. London: Atlantic Books.
  • Connor, Alan. Two Girls, One on Each Knee: The Puzzling, Playful World of the Crossword. New York: Penguin, 2013.

By Karen Bruce

Stay tuned for the next Obsession Story for which Bruce has tagged Dorothy Noyes!