Crucifying Cruciverbalists

Cruciverbalist (krew-sih-VER-bull-ist, noun) — someone skilled in creating and/or solving crossword puzzles.

I’ve loved crossword puzzles for many years. They make wonderful vocabulary-building exercises, as well as being a great excuse to get away from whatever else you’re doing, thus performing the 7th Habit that Stephen Covey calls “Sharpening the Saw” (see — if you can stomach it — his book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). It can be an entertaining and mind-stretching exercise to wrestle down a good clue and line up the letters in that challenging grid. Cruciverbalists, however, don’t always play fair. I’ve discovered over the years that, essentially, there are four types of crossword puzzle clue: Direct, Clever, Deceitful, and Irrelevant.

A Direct clue is straightforward, without any need for lateral thinking. Examples include “The opposite of up (4 letters)” or “Joker Nicholson (4 letters)”. You really have to hunt, bend, and twist not to come up with “down” and “Jack” for those clues. These are most often the clues that we use to build up the grid so that we can get some help with harder clues.

A Clever clue is one that has a bit of wordplay or an amusing joke to go with it. Examples include “There’s a Doctor aboard (6 letters)” or “Scout master?  (5 letters)”. I hope everyone got “TARDIS” (the traveling space/time ship of Doctor Who) and “Tonto” (you may recall that the “faithful Indian companion” to the Lone Ranger rode a horse named Scout). Some specialized knowledge — not to mention a few letters already filled in to help trigger that knowledge — is required to get these clues. Even so, those of us who work on crosswords regularly have at least an even-money bet of figuring these clues out eventually.

The Deceitful clue is one that has only a tangential reference to the word in question. “Added to soup or salad (8 letters).” The immediate answer that comes to mind is “croutons.” It’s the only sensible answer; 100% of my friends polled (several of them writers) agreed. The cruciverbalist wanted “scallion”. The deceit here is that the most reasonable answer that fits the space is not the one that will fit the puzzle, since few of us would think of green onion as a usual additive. It is indeed something available on a soup and salad bar and, by that remote and inaccessible logic, “tomatoes” or “soysauce” would fit, as they too are available on said buffet and usable in either soup or salad. Those a’polled were appalled. A far better and more accurate clue would be “Added to baked potato”; since most of us think butter, bacon, cheese, or sour cream first (none of which fit), it’s more toward the “clever” side of the spectrum. As we are discovering, however, there are cruciverbalists who — I won’t resist the pun — relish is making us suffer rather than merely challenging our intellect.

A clue becomes Irrelevant when the clue itself is insufficient to render any sensible chance at an answer. One memorable example is “Bat portrayer (15 letters)”. “Christian Bale” is 13; ditto, “Michael Keaton”; “Alan Napier” is 10; “Val Kilmer” is 9; “Adam West” is 8… we’re going backward here. The answer appears to be “Sacha Baron Cohen.” To understand this utterly irrelevant response, one must make note that it is a “starred” clue, referring to another clue reading “Choir section… and what are missing from the starred clues.” The answer to this no less reprehensible alleged-clue is “Tenors”. The higher-ranged male singers are missing from a bat portayer? No… there are 10 starred clues, so “ten ors” are missing… the letters “OR” to be precise. So the bORat portrayer is Cohen. (As a side note, I can’t bring myself to watch that damned film.)

This plague of irrelevance gets worse. In this same puzzle, appearing in the New York Times on January 10, 2009, the very first clue is “*Panama (4 letters).” Okay, even if we have been so utterly disassociated with reality that we have figured out that we need to stick OR into this clue, precisely where are we to stick it? (I hear you giggle.) PanORama, apparently, for “view” — the four letters needed for the puzzle. To get to this answer, one must take not just one but three leaps of (dare I use the word?) logic.

I’ll gladly withstand any and all insults or taunts of not being smart enough to do battle with Will Shortz, the famous editor of the New York Times crosswords. I never claimed to be. He reigns supreme is his domain, and his brain apparently is twisted enough that he actually enjoys this sort of insanity. Good on ‘im. For my own sake, I only hope that, when I’m called upon to “get a clue”, it won’t be an irrelevant one.

(For those wondering when Alan Napier portrayed Batman… First, remember that Napier played butler Alfred Pennyworth in the 1960s television series. On one occasion, in an attempt to prove that Bruce Wayne and Batman are not the same person, Alfred togs up and appears with the Boy Wonder at some gathering where Bruce Wayne is present. It’s a stretch, but when attempting to follow that irrelevant and idiotic clue, I took every possible choice into account. When dealing with Will “Gotcha By The” Shortz, one can’t be too careful.)

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