I'm taking a short break from writing this blog - unless something vitally important in the world of crosswords comes up in the meantime, that is, otherwise I'll be back on 2 June.
Footnote I suppose it's pretty obvious (too obvious to mention as "stop press" on the Listener Crossword Home Page apparently!), but 15ac in this week's Listener Crossword (No 4241 Skippers by Ifor) is misprinted in the printed edition of the paper. It's been corrected in the Times Crossword Club's online version, where it now reads "Abba up 14 places like member of another group (4)".
Current Location:Ealing Current Mood: feeling like a break
Alec Robins quotes the following clue in his book Crosswords in the Teach Yourself series. He believes it appeared in a Times crossword "many years ago" (he was writing in 1975).
My first is what my second is not (7)
It's possible that you've already twigged the answer from the title of this blog entry, but in case you haven't, here are some checked letters to help you (select between the square brackets to reveal them): [W‑A‑N‑T]. Robins writes:
If that was indeed the complete clue, then it lacked the essential definition which would have made it completely fair. But even as it stands, it is as brilliant an example of camouflaged simplicity as one could wish to meet, At first sight it appears to be fiendishly complicated, but in fact the answer [WHATNOT] is actually staring us in the face if we will only accept the evidence of our eyes - a thing which most if us (and with reason!) are often too suspicious to do when solving clues. A generous salute to the unnamed optical illusionist who devised this clue is not, I believe, out of place here.
Last Monday's Times crossword (No. 25,461) contained the clue:
Creditor appeased at first when 16's brought over (5)
where the answer to 16ac was BILL. There was no definition here either, but that was by accident rather than design since the final word "capital" had been lost somewhere between the crossword editor (who assiduously checked that ACCRA was still the capital of Ghana) and the online datafile and printed page. I'm embarrassed to say that I'd forgotten that ACCRA was a capital city - particularly as I can't use the excuse that it's changed since I had my last geography lesson since it was the capital of the Gold Coast then - so I didn't spot what was clearly obvious to most other solvers, and struggled under the assumption that the answer was probably going to be an acronym for some credit agency, with "creditor" in the clue doing double duty. Or maybe I was simply missing something obvious. I could see that AC and AD were both possibilities for "bill", and that AS would do for "when", but I couldn't come up with any combination of letters other than ACCRA that rang any bells. So in the end I plumped for that, obeying one of my main rules of crossword-solving: never put in a word you haven't heard of unless you're truly desperate. (Phew!)
Would last Monday's clue (without its definition) have appeared in a Times crossword in the days when definitionless clues were commonplace? I suspect not: it's just too fiddly and really rather dull. That said, I've no objection in principle to definitionless clues, provided they're not overdone - no more than two in any one crossword, say. I'm not sure that I'd have solved the old Times clue straight away back in the day, but I suspect light might well have dawned quite quickly once I had a two or three checked letters in place, at which point I could hardly fail to have been enchanted by its brilliance. (It still makes me smile every time I see it.) So, old fogey that I am, I can't help feeling that something has been lost in the desperate quest for fairness.
Here's a clue from Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword which I included in this earlier entry:
Sticking out for the potato insect? (11) [PROTUBERANT] (select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
Not perhaps one of Ximenes's best, but he included it to illustrate how a question mark can be used to show that the setter is using an example (there are other tubers besides potatoes) instead of a definition to indicate an answer or part of an answer to a clue. Failing to do so has become known as "definition by example" or DBE, and strict Ximeneans are sticklers for avoiding it, though others (including me) take a more relaxed view, and indeed probably don't even notice it half the time.
Here's another clue from the Times crossword from the Thursday before last (No. 25,452, the same one that contained the clue I wrote about last week):
Twenty seconds to deal with Jonathan? (5) [SCORE]
I'm pretty sure I first came across "Jonathan" meaning "an American variety of apple" (to quote Chambers (2011)) in a Times crossword, and as I had the first letter of the answer in place when I reached the clue, I was able to solve it quite quickly. I might not even have noticed the question mark until someone commenting on the TftT blog for the day objected to the clue on the grounds of DBE. It turned out that he'd set crosswords in the past and that his editors had objected to using a question mark in the way Ximenes recommended. I turned anxiously to Alec Robins's Teach Yourself Crosswords and Don Manley's Chambers Crossword Guide and was relieved to find that both explicitly suggest it as an alternative to "perhaps" or "for example".
With these three oracles on the side of the question mark, I'd be interested to know if there's any serious authority out there who objects to it. I'd also be interested to know who first came up with the term "definition by example", because I don't think it's a terribly good one. The problem is that "definition" and "wordplay" are often used to demarcate the two parts of a typical modern-day cryptic crossword clue, so that "definition by example" sounds as though it should apply to any clue in which the "definition" part is provided by an example, even when this is clearly indicated. However, I'm not happy with any of the alternatives I've thought of so far, so would welcome any suggestions.
Thursday's Times crossword (No. 25,452) contained the following clue:
A sailing vessel moored in sound (2,6) [AT ANCHOR] (select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
I don't imagine experienced solvers had too much difficulty with this, and in fact there was only one mention of it in the puzzle's Times Crossword Club Cryptic Forum thread, where someone suggested that "maybe [it] would have read better if 'moored' had been placed at the start of the clue." However, a few TftT commenters were rather less forgiving, complaining that the clue led naturally to A TANKER, and some took exception to "sailing vessel" since tankers aren't normally powered by sail.
There were various suggestions as to how the clue might be parsed to give the expected answer (you can read them all here), but I didn't find any of them particularly convincing. I think if I'd been the setter/editor, I'd have taken the same line as the TCC commenter and changed the clue to "Moored a sailing vessel in sound (2,6)" - or perhaps just "Moored a vessel in sound (2,6)" or "Moored a ship in sound (2,6)" to satisfy those who weren't happy with "sailing vessel". However, as usual I took a more relaxed view of the clue (I didn't have any checked letters to go on when I reached it, but I can't have taken more than 10 seconds over it, and a couple of those were spent wondering whether to be worried about the word order - and deciding that I wasn't) and was willing to allow the setter poetic licence.
Of course it's always possible that I (and all the other commenters) have missed some subtle way of parsing the clue that would at least satisfy the "A TANKER" faction, if not those who objected to "sailing vessel". Perhaps the latter have a point - though I can't get too worked up about it myself. And for some reason - presumably to do with the sense of the verb "to sail" defined in Chambers (2011) as "to progress, travel or make trips in sailing-craft or any other type of ship" (my italics) - a "sailing vessel" sounds to me as if it could be any vessel that sails in the Chambers sense, whereas a "sailing ship" is (as Chambers defines it) "a ship driven by sails".
I've written a lot about the T2 Concise puzzle over the period (nearly four years) when this blog was devoted to the daily Race the Clock competition that the Times Crossword Club used to provide, and I've mentioned it occasionally since, particularly in this entry where I touched on Ninas and the exhausting Philip K. Dick series. However, the TCC also gives access to the Sunday Times Concise puzzle, which I generally find rather more tricky.
In the days when The Times was a proper newspaper - i.e. a broadsheet - I only rarely used to fill in the T2 Concise puzzle. However, shortly after I retired, they switched to tabloid format, and I started buying the paper on Saturdays only, and joined the TCC for the first time so that I could continue solving the daily Cryptic. I soon discovered the pleasures and frustrations of Race the Clock, which got me into the habit of doing the T2 Concise puzzle daily. And I also started doing the Sunday Times puzzles, both the Cryptic and the Concise, which were interestingly different from the daily Times puzzles. The ST Concise in particular demanded significantly more general knowledge than the T2 Concise, and I quite often found myself unable to finish it without recourse to wikipedia or some other solving aid (this was before Peter Biddlecombe took over as ST crossword editor).
Looking back over the pre-Biddlecombe puzzles, I found one I hadn't done from November 2010 (No. 1183) which contained the clues "Capital of Liechtenstein (5)" and "Capital of Greenland (4)", neither of which I had any idea about, even when I had the checked letters (V‑D‑Z and ‑U‑K, respectively - I've given the solutions in the Footnote below to save you looking them up in case you're as ignorant as I was). I'm not proud of this, but I'm not entirely surprised either, since at Dotheboys I gave up Geography at 12 to do Classical Greek, among the lasting effects of which is that I'm not good on foreign capitals (or foreign currencies, for that matter). I tried one more pre-Biddlecombe Concise puzzle that I hadn't previously tackled, this time from January 2011 (No. 1189). I fared rather better with this one, though since the first letter of the answer to "Roman god of revelry, son of Bacchus (5)" crossed with the third letter of the answer to "Roman god of death (5)", whose only other checked letter was its fifth (an S), I imagine that those without a fair grasp of classical mythology might have had problems. And if that didn't catch you out, then there was "Large fish related to the mackerel (5)" with W‑H‑‑ as the only checked letters.
The advantage of general knowledge clues is that if you know the answers, they're an easy win. The new, Biddlecombe-era ST Concise puzzles have fewer - or at any rate easier - general knowledge clues, but I usually seem to find the puzzles as a whole more difficult than the T2 Concise puzzles. I think that's because their clues generally tend to be more cryptic, though even the straight definitions seem less helpful. In last week's puzzle we had "Pull to pieces (5)" and "Cloying sweetness (5)" - not perhaps the most obvious clues for ROAST and SYRUP - as well as "Press (4)" leading naturally to either IRON or URGE, with other more distant synonyms possible as well. But in any case, in the absence of Race the Clock, I can't get too worked up about Concise puzzles like these, which are, for me, just a sideshow to the main event. I usually have a go at the Concise as a warm-up before tackling the Cryptic for the day. If I polish it off reasonably quickly without making a mistake, then that's good, but I try not to get too upset if I don't, particularly if it's because I opted for a reasonable alternative answer. On the other hand I find that, like a collision at sea (to quote Thucydides - or maybe not!?), failure to solve a Cryptic correctly "can ruin your entire day".
Footnote Select between the square brackets for clue answers. Capital of Liechtenstein (5) [VADUZ] Capital of Greenland (4) [NUUK] Roman god of revelry, son of Bacchus (5) [COMUS] Roman god of death (5) [ORCUS] Large fish related to the mackerel (5) [WAHOO]
I haven't had much to say about concise crosswords recently, since the cryptic ones are generally more interesting, but the Sunday Times Concise crossword last Sunday (No. 1,306) contained the clue "Unexciting (modern slang) (3)" (answer MEH), and even though this wasn't particularly exciting in itself (though I wouldn't go so far as to describe it as meh), what I did find interesting was that some people writing in the Times Crossword Club's Concise Forum thread for the puzzle hadn't come across the word before. I can't remember when or where I first came across it myself, but I suspect it was in an article in The Times, probably by either Caitlin Moran or Giles Coren, the two journalists I've found most likely to come up with unfamiliar words. A couple of weeks ago, Giles wrote a very silly article in which he used the word "beezer" in a context where it obviously meant "nose". There was nothing to support this in Chambers (2011) or Oxford Dictionaries Pro, but there in the online OED was "2. (Perhaps a different word.) Nose. slang", with a couple of citations from P. G. Wodehouse (including one from a book I think I may have read many years ago), which is presumably where Giles got the word from. I doubt if BEEZER is going to come up in a crossword, but it's a jolly alternative to "shnozzle", "snoot" (a word I can definitely remember first meeting in Wodehouse), "conk", "hooter" and the rest.
The problem is, I can never be quite sure that Giles and Caitlin aren't simply inventing words, and I sometimes wonder whether they're hoping that someone else will pick up a neologism of theirs, and that when it eventually become common currency they can then bag the first citation in the OED (like Will Shakespeare kept doing :-). In some cases, I suspect there's some subtle (or maybe not so subtle - I can be awfully obtuse at times) reference that I haven't picked up. In yesterday's Times, Giles introduced the phrase "mad as a bag of rappers", clearly meaning "furious". But what kind of rappers might these be, that a bag of them could be a byword for fury? The only definition of "rapper" in Oxford Dictionaries Pro is "a person who performs rap music", which I suppose is a possibility, but somehow it seems a little unlikely. Chambers (2011) does a little better, adding to that meaning "a person who raps; a doorknocker; a great lie or oath (archaic); a spirit-rapper", and the OED has several more definitions, but there's no mention of "bags" or "madness" in any of them.
For some reason none of these dictionaries includes the meaning of "rapper" that I'm most familiar with: rapper sword dancing or, tout court, rapper. I can claim a crossword connection here, since I remember the clue "Type of sword (6)" coming up some years ago in a T2 Concise puzzle with R‑P‑E‑ as the checked letters, and kicking myself for over-hastily bunging in RAPPER instead of the more obvious answer. As a Yorkshireman, I'm more familiar with longsword dancing, but I enjoy both forms. However, although rapper can certainly be fast and furious (see for example this clip from the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990, introduced by my old friend Chris Metherell), I don't think it can be used to justify "mad as a bag of rappers". "Doorknockers" probably comes nearest - they'd at least make a lot of noise - but even that seems a bit far-fetched. Perhaps he really meant "mad as a bag of spanners" or "mad as a bag of snakes", both of which have some currency, at least according to Bing? All suggestions welcomed - particularly if I'm missing something obvious.
I sometimes worry that Giles Coren seems to be becoming increasingly mad (mad deranged, rather than mad, furious, that is) - almost as if he was daring the Times editor to sack him. On the other hand, I'm never quite sure whether Caitlin Moran is the sanest person on earth or already completely bonkers - but in a good way. Anyway, there's no other journalist I'd rather read: she takes me into an unfamiliar world, which often has unfamiliar (and intriguing) vocabulary. But, as with Giles, I can't always be sure whether the words she writes are products of her own fertile imagination, or misspellings, or ... For instance, from a couple of weeks ago we have "foxine". That sounds to me like a proper word - comparable with "speakerine", perhaps a portmanteau word derived from "foxy" and "gamine" - yet even Urban Dictionary draws a blank with this one. What about "donk" from the same article? Surely that must be just a simple misprint for "dork". On the other hand a "tauntaun" turns out to be a creature from the Star Wars film series - but perhaps that's common knowledge. (You can find a list of Star Wars creatures "noted in multiple canonical sources" here - heaven help us.) And finally, how about "rat mittens", as in (to quote Caitlin) "Who is now in metaphorical rat mittens? Me." Not a well-known phrase now, perhaps, but maybe it will catch on.
Current Location:Ealing Current Mood: neologistic (again)
Here's a clue from Times crossword No. 25,428 (21 March):
Hour with an employee (4) [HAND] (select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
A straightforward, neatly-constructed clue you might think (at least I do), and yet someone writing in a Times Crossword Club forum objected to it on the grounds that the word "an" was unnecessary, claiming that "Modern setters are often careless about the Ximenean principle that no surplus text must appear in the clue." I find this almost offensively nit-picking, particularly as I can find no evidence that Ximenes suggested that clues must contain no surplus text - and if indeed he did, it would be a matter of "Do as I say, not as I do".
I think I can guess how this misunderstanding might have arisen. Here's what Ximenes had to say about "hidden" clues in Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword:
... it may be fair, but to my mind it is most inartistic, to have redundant words in the hiding-place like this: "This girl appears in black at every party she goes to ". I needn't tell you the answer; but I hate those last four words of eyewash! Compare this with one of Afrit's best: "Girl detected in imitating Lady Sneerwell ". You won't take long to find her, because in this context you know she's hidden; but she might not catch your eye at once otherwise.
I suspect this has been passed on in a series of Chinese whispers, in the course of which "redundant words in the hiding-place" has been transmogrified into "redundant words in clues". A later commenter on the same TCC forum thread advised people to get hold of and read Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword, and I would heartily endorse that. I rushed out and bought a copy when it was first published in 1966, and those who missed the opportunity then were given another chance when Swallowtail Books produced a new edition in 2001; but sadly it is now out of print again. Secondhand copies do seem to be available, but at a hefty price. Which is a pity if it means that people are going to invent rules, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and ascribe them to Ximenes.
But in any case, as I've said before, I'm not one of those who regard Ximenes on the Art of the Crossword as holy writ. I've no objection if setters choose to adhere rigorously to Ximenean rules, but I rarely object if they don't. Nowadays the Times crossword sticks to a good number of them, but some Times setters are quite happy to break one or two, and, since I'm aware of this, I've no objection to it - and in fact get rather tired of those who object every time one is broken. I still enjoy old Times crosswords from pre-Ximenean days - often more than some of the more convoluted modern crosswords - and I enjoy current TLS crosswords where almost anything goes. Chambers (2011) defines a clue as "anything that points to the solution of a mystery or puzzle", and I'm quite happy for that pointer to be fairly oblique. As someone who's had to find and fix bugs in a good number of computer programs, sometimes ones that have become crufty over years of development by different programmers, I enjoy the challenge :-).
Footnote At one time LiveJournal forwarded a copy of each comment on these blog entries to my e-mail address. I'd noticed a couple of instances in the past where this hadn't happened, but I've just found that two of the three comments that people posted on last week's blog entry failed to reach my mailbox. Please accept my apologies if I've failed to reply to something in the last few weeks (months? years?) that deserved a response. I'll try to remember to make regular checks in future.
There was a comment in one of the Times Crossword Club's forums last week by someone who felt that hasty solvers missed a lot of fun, and compared them to musicians who try to play quickly rather than well. I don't know how carefully the commenter chose the words "hasty" and "fun", but the former has connotations of carelessness, and the latter of high jinks, so perhaps he really meant "fast" and "enjoyment"; and in any case the comparison between solving a crossword puzzle and playing a piece of music seems very odd.
Nevertheless, I think I can see what the commenter was getting at, particularly as I'm going through one of my periodic bad patches at the moment. As a competitive solver, I can't help but look back to the days when I was a lot faster than I am now. Every now and then I suddenly find a setter's wavelength and recall the sheer joy of speed, but all too often these days I find myself struggling. And with each bad patch, I worry that once I eventually come through it - assuming I come through it - I've taken another step down the slope. So sitting in a comfortable armchair and solving a Times crossword in a leisurely manner, without any timer to distract me, beside a cosy fire with a glass of something, starts to look increasingly hard to beat. Particularly on a cold, miserable day like today.
A recent Sunday Times Cryptic (No. 4526 by Jeff Pearce, 24 February) contained the following clue:
Eg Willow or Holly seen in grounds of Buckingham Palace? (5) [CORGI] (select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
This clue has a lot going for it: it's witty; and despite not knowing the identity of Willow and Holly, an experienced solver will almost certainly be able to guess the answer either immediately or at least once a crossing letter or two are in place - that is, assuming they're not sidetracked too badly by Warwick Davis and Audrey Hepburn. And yet, and yet ...
... I feel uneasy about a clue in which (and I'm guessing here) the vast majority of Sunday Times crossword solvers wouldn't have heard of this particular Willow and Holly. No doubt there's a mixture of republicanism, cynophobia and intellectual snobbery involved, but not only had I not heard of them, I had no desire to do so. I've a niggling suspicion that for each new fact I acquire, two old ones are lost, in which case this was almost certainly a bad trade-off. And I have a horrible vision of some time in the future when they're trying to establish whether or not I'm compos mentis and ask me the name of the current prime minister; and I reply either "Harold Wilson" or "I've no idea", and then add "but I can tell you the names of two of the queen's corgis in 2013". At which point they cart me off to Funny Farm.
Footnote Belated solution to Violet Elizabeth's crossword: 2ac: DOG 1dn: COF
For most of my time as a software designer I felt I was managing to keep up reasonably well with the latest developments in the world of IT, but as my career neared its end I began to sense that the technology was moving rather faster than I was. On the whole, I like to think that I'm still managing to keep up reasonably well with the how things are developing in the world of crosswords - which is to say, with the way in which new words and new meanings of old words are coming into existence. However, I was thoroughly flummoxed by the following clue in last Saturday's puzzle (No. 25,412):
One might get down to this business of investigating? (5) [DISCO] (select between the square brackets for the answer, or read on)
Eventually, with my half-hour time limit for solving nearly exhausted, I plumped for what turned out to be the correct answer, but with no real idea about the definition, and with only what seemed to me a highly unsatisfactory explanation of the wordplay. As far as I can gather, "business of investigating?" is supposed to represent "DI's Co", but while it would do very nicely for "PI's Co" and thus PISCO ("an alcoholic spirit distilled from grape wine", named after the port in Peru from which it was exported, according to Chambers - but I expect you knew that), it doesn't work for me as wordplay for DISCO since DIs (assuming DI stands for Detective Inspector) can't form a Co as they work for the Police.
The real problem though was the "definition" part of the clue, which, in its vagueness, somehow called to mind 1dn in Violet Elizabeth's crossword (see Footnote). This appeared to involve some meaning of "get down" or "get down to" that was unknown to me. Which indeed turned out to be the case, and I'm indebted to a TftT commenter for explaining that DISCO here refers to disco music (rather than a discotheque) and that "get down" means "to dance". Hence someone who likes that sort of thing would "get down to disco" in the same way that I might at one time have "got down to baroque", though I somehow doubt if the other baroque dancers would have understood precisely what that meant!
Having investigated further, I now find that Ealing Public Library, which kindly gives me access to the online OED, also gives me access to the more up-to-date Oxford Dictionaries Pro (ODP), where "get down" is defined as "North American informaldance energetically", even though the main example (ODP gives examples rather than citations) "Get down and party!" isn't obviously connected with dancing. (Some of the other examples - such as "I braved five different dance classes to get the lowdown on getting down." - did mention it, but generally the "energetic" element was barely touched on.) My main guide to popular culture is Caitlin Moran, the one writer for The Times whom I would actually miss if I gave up buying the paper on a Saturday. I was tempted to blame her for this gap in my knowledge, but it's apparent that if she had used the phrase as in another of the ODP examples - "We were getting down on the dance floor when the song changed and Joe disappeared." - it would simply have passed me by. Anyway I shall remember it if it comes up again, at least in the next few weeks before it has the chance to slip from my memory.
Footnote For those unfamiliar with Violet Elizabeth's "croth word puthle", which Richmal Crompton reproduces in William in Trouble, I leave this as an exercise in crossword-solving. The 3x3 grid has two lights which intersect in the central cell. The two clues (which I've renumbered according to the modern convention) are as follows:
2ac: Oppossit of cat (3) 1dn: Wot you have dropps of (3)
Solution next week (in case the answer to 1dn eludes you ;-).