Thursday, August 26, 2010

No Crosswordese, Please

When is the last time you found an olio of Oreo orts in your olla?  Did you ever see a naiad atop an arête on an ait in the Aare or the Isere? Does Oona ogle you through an ogee in an oda in Eire?  And I do hope that your ilia have never been injured one iota in a melee by an inee-tipped epee.  

The italicized words in the previous paragraph are all examples of crosswordese—words or names that tend to appear far more frequently in crossword puzzles than they do in ordinary discourse. Some of them are a wee bit archaic, perhaps, or a wee bit foreign, but you’ll find them in most standard dictionaries.  Ideally such words are avoided like noxious oil slicks when constructing a puzzle. But try as they may, editors can’t stamp them out completely; they will keep cropping up when a constructor is backed into a corner.

The reason they are so popular is that they are full of vowels, which tend to make it easier for the puzzle-maker to come up with words that will cross them to complete the grid. My favorite vowel-heavy word, which only rarely can I work into a conversation (or a puzzle) is giaour—a French-Italian-Turkish-Persian word meaning an infidel in the Islamic faith.           

The best puzzles are those with tricky clues for very ordinary words. They may be puns or phrases that can be taken more than one way.  Some of the cleverest I’ve come across are:

            West of Hollywood (answer: MAE)
            Place for notes on a piano  (TIP JAR)
            Bolt with no threads (STREAK)
            Norwegian city in Czechoslovakia (OSLO)
            Stale Italian bread (LIRA)
            French flower (SEINE)
            Pecking order (KISS ME)
            Perfect pitch (STRIKE)

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has never uttered a cross word in his life, but he has waxed poetic (not to mention floors) with undecipherable clues, like these:

            You cannot stand to have this—
            The answer is your LAP.
            It may give you a turn-on—
            The solution is a TAP.
            Stops crashes on your hard drive—
            Well, that would be a MAP.
            For the empty-headed—
            In just three letters—CAP.


  1. Yet another reason to avoid crosswords like the plague! I was always told that puns were the lowest form of humor ... unless you came up with them yourself.