The Musings of Doctor Clue

I thought it would be good to have a rather less structured area within the site where I could capture random puzzle-related thoughts as they came to me and readers (if any!) could join in a discussion.

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Some Mistake?

I saw a comment on an online forum recently in which a solver had objected to ‘some’ as a hidden indicator. While it transpired that they had mistaken it for a letter selection indicator, and had no issue with it in the former role, I was prompted to reassess the use of the word. I don’t think that anyone could complain about ‘some of these escorts’ as the wordplay for SEES, but what about ‘some chase escorts’? In the first instance, ‘some’ is technically an indefinite pronoun (though I would be inclined to view it as a quasi-noun), but in the second it is an adjective, and the noun which it qualifies is always generic (‘some bread’, ‘some words’). Hence in the ‘real world’ it never refers to a part of anything specific, whereas ‘some of’ always does, as in ‘some of this text’.

I’m very doubtful about the validity of this adjectival usage, and my concerns extend to other similar adjectives, such as ‘little’ and ‘most’ – again the noun-based forms ‘a little of’ and ‘most of’ are fine, but ‘a little bread’ and ‘most bread’ refer to bread generically, so ‘a little bread’ to indicate B and ‘most bread’ for MONE(y) both strike me as unsound.

Although I plan to stop using these indicators in my own clues, they are commonly seen in puzzles by a wide range of setters and rarely (if ever) seem to trouble solvers, so I hesitate to remove them from the lists on this site. Any views would be welcomed.

Not Really

Writing a clue the other day for SPINELESS, I was prompted to ask myself a question similar to one which I have idly pondered before without reaching a conclusion. Could ‘gutless’ be used to define SPINELESS (or vice versa)? Chambers Dictionary ascribes very similar meanings to the two words, and the Chambers Thesaurus indicates that in the sense of ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly’ they are synonymous, but knowledge of the real world tells us that lacking a spine is very different from lacking a gut. Similar considerations apply to NUTS and BANANAS, and those despicable SWINE, DOGS, RATS and LICE.

What the question boils down to is whether a word which has a figurative sense can be considered synonymous with another word which has the same – also figurative – sense. And whether the fact that their literal meanings are blatantly different has any bearing on the issue. I think this second point is probably key, because whilst defining LOUSE by ‘rat’ seems counterintuitive, ‘scab’ seems somehow a more acceptable definition, just as ‘yellow’ would be for SPINELESS.

The ‘substitution test’ would have us believe that there isn’t a problem: “He’s a complete louse” and “He’s a complete rat” have exactly the same meaning, neither involving the chap in question being anything other than a man, just a despicable one.

So I think it’s fair to say that if we were to rule that a rat cannot be a louse, then we must disallow a whole raft of other apparent synonyms (NETTLE and BUG etc). I think that would be wholly inappropriate, this being a situation where one simply has to focus on a specific sense of each word, though I’m still not sure I could bring myself to define SPINELESS by ‘gutless’. Having answered my own question, I opted to use the figurative, but slightly less contradictory, ‘chicken’.

Capital Losses

It is generally considered unacceptable for a setter to arbitrarily remove a capital letter which is required by the cryptic reading of a clue. So ‘Take one around nice course’ for RUN is no good, since ‘nice’ has to be ‘Nice’ for the wordplay (R + UN) to work. So how about ‘Pass river, one in Nice’, also for RUN? Superficially, that looks ok. But a check in Chambers tells us that R is an abbreviation for ‘River’ (with a capital letter), but not ‘river’.

We could ask ourselves “Is the abbreviation ever used in real life to indicate the complete word without the initial capital?” In this instance (for ‘R=river’) the answer seems to me a definite “No” – the abbreviation is only seen in the names of specific rivers (typically on maps) as eg ‘R. Thames’, and is never used generically. So saying ‘river’ when you mean ‘River’ is really no different to saying ‘nice’ when you mean ‘Nice’, and presumably shouldn’t be allowed.

Apart from ‘river’, such a prohibition would rule out several old favourites lacking an initial capital: ‘street’, ‘road’ and ‘lake’ from the ‘geographical’ group, as well as ‘society’ (for ‘S’) and ‘king’ (for ‘R’, though not for ‘K’, which is  an abbreviation for ‘king’ in the context of chess or cards).

Knowing this, would I use, say, ‘river’ for R in a clue? Well, since I suspect that there isn’t a single solver out there who would bat an eyelid, I certainly wouldn’t reject a good clue purely to avoid it. I think it’s fair to say that some wordplay elements are so well established that it makes no sense to unilaterally boycott them, but this does show that even at a general level there is on occasion a lack of consistency when it comes to what is deemed allowable and what is not.

Going, Gone

Like old soldiers, old words in the English language never die, their memory being preserved by dictionaries such as Chambers. The Big Red Book has a number of classifications for words which are not in common use, including ‘old’ and ‘rare’, but the largest groups consist of those categorized as ‘archaic’ or ‘obsolete’. There is, I think, general agreement that when such words appear in puzzles they need to be flagged by the setter, eg ‘old chestnut’ for the obsolete term FAVEL.

There seems to be a tendency among setters to treat archaisms and obsoletisms identically, but let’s consider what the two classifications mean:

  • archaic. Describes words which are ‘not absolutely obsolete but no longer in general use’; they will typically have been common at some point in the past, but that could have been a long time ago. Examples would be immeritous for ‘undeserving’ and mouldwarp for a mole.
  • obsolete. Words classified as obsolete may once have been common but are now completely out of use. Among such words are disembrangle (‘to free from dispute’) and ellops, a kind of sturgeon.

I recently saw the definition of a word shown by Chambers as ‘archaic’ being qualified in a clue by ‘dead’. This seems wrong to me – terms indicating total absence from today’s language are fine for obsolete words, but archaic ones are still hanging on in there, so although ‘once’ or ‘former’ is fine for an archaic word (or an archaic sense of a word), I don’t think ‘dead’ is valid. An ‘extinct sturgeon’ could be ELLOPS, but a MOULDWARP surely isn’t an ‘extinct mole’.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

A question: what attribute was shared by the first crosswords published in The Times and The Telegraph, but not the first Guardian puzzle?

The answer is 180° rotational symmetry. It’s something that we take for granted, particularly in blocked puzzles, but why is it there, and would we care if it wasn’t?

I don’t think anyone is sure why it’s there, although it certainly simplifies grid construction (produce half the grid and the other half will look after itself) and checking, while the resulting layout is aesthetically pleasing. With the exception of the occasional barred puzzle, every crossword published in Britain will have at minimum 180° symmetry, with the odd one adding 90° symmetry on top of that. The main grid of every puzzle I’ve ever set has been symmetrical, and I’m a little put out when I see a barred puzzle where symmetry has been sacrificed to the demands of the theme. But why? The rules around unchecked letters (‘unches’) and disconnected sections of the grid (there were eight completely separate blocks in the first Telegraph puzzle, by the way) are there for reasons of fairness to the solver, but symmetry (except in skeleton or carte blanche puzzles, where the solver has to locate the blocks or bars themselves) has no effect of solvability.

I think the look of a puzzle is important, and I find a grid which is not symmetrical around a line or axis jarring, so my rating of an ‘offending’ puzzle will be downgraded accordingly. But I accept that this may be tantamount to criticizing Picasso’s artworks simply because they don’t look like paintings ought to. Views, anyone…?

2 Responses

  1. Dr. Daniel Price (Saint Vincent) says:

    As you state, requiring synonymy of strict definitions precludes too many commonly-accepted replacements. Figurative language is often in broad use, and it does not seem to be a stretch to equate figurative definitions. [With that said: I would not use “gutless” to define “spineless”, as the words have the same endings. “Lacking guts” for “spineless”, however, not only works with their definitions but also suggests wordplay that is absent: a nice bit of trickery.]

  2. Dr Daniel Price (Saint Vincent) says:

    All of my grids are themed, and I expend much effort in ensuring that theme words do not intersect, even when the theme is irrelevant to solving or is trivial. Even better, and even when I am likely to be the only person who notices, are grids where the themed entries are symmetrically arranged. My bride, who has no truck with cryptics (“you do you, dude”), is nevertheless the recipient of my commentary, and pretends to be happy for me when I achieve the desired effects. The look of the thing is important for our art, and art it is.

    Yes, an obviously asymmetrical grid niggles setter and solver. Conditioned responses, perhaps, but conditioned all the same.