Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Crosswords, Aha Moments, and the Joy of Being Misled

We'd like to welcome Adam Cooper, a writer and linguist, as our newest regular contributor! Here Adam explores how solving crosswords (both American-style and British-style) can offer unexpected pleasures in wordplay. "Sometimes being misled, at least for a little while, can lead you to the most rewarding destinations," he writes.

There's something inherently satisfying about filling in a crossword puzzle answer. When you know trivia not immediately useful in your everyday life, like, say, "Capital of Montana" (Helena), crossword puzzles provide a literal space for that information to go, and seeing it in a grid is a small ego boost. The thrill gets greater the harder the trivia is, and there's no limit to what crossword puzzles may ask you, from "TV puppet ALF's home planet" (Melmac) to "Hormone thought to regulate sleep/wake cycle" (melatonin) or "Muse of Tragedy" (Melpomene).

Some crosswords make the trivia harder by asking difficult trivia phrased in a knotty way, like "What the 1st Secretary of the Treasury and the VP of the Confederacy had in common" (names). You might know Alexander Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury and Alexander Stephens was Vice President of the Confederacy, but it's another level of trivia entirely to know these facts and that Stephens' full name was Alexander Hamilton Stephens. A lot of crossword puzzles work like this, where either you know the answer or you don't and that's really the end of the story — you've reached a dead end for that clue and have to depend on the letters from the other intersecting answers you do know.

There is another type of crossword clue, though, one that in the short term is just as frustrating as the trivia answer you just can't remember, but is ultimately more rewarding. These are the clues that can be read in myriad ways, or don't seem to make much sense when you first read them. They provide the opportunity for what one might call the "aha moment" where you realize you have been interpreting a given clue incorrectly the entire time you've been working on the puzzle, but now you see it clearly.

I cherish crosswords in general, and the aha moment in particular, because I find that such moments don't really occur too often in everyday life, when a light shines on the right choice to make and you can be confident that you are correct in your decision because everything falls into place soon after. When they do occur, aha moments in life have repercussions. The aha moment in a crossword setting is largely consequence-free, and that certainly doesn't happen outside the puzzle grid.

Often the types of clues I'm talking about are punctuated with a question mark, to show that they aren't necessarily to be taken literally, and it's left to the solver to interpret the clue. If you immediately suspected that the answer to a clue like "Party animal? (6 letters)" was likely to be pinata, then you're on the right track.

Sometimes these clues will mislead you with metaphor, when they really want a hyper-literal answer, as when the answer to "One who carries a torch (6 letters)" completely ignores the idiom "to carry a torch (for)" when the answer turns out to be welder. After that, clues like "Country music (6 letters)" (anthem) should be a breeze, and you may be up to the challenge of "Parting words (4 letters)" (obit).

All crossword puzzles provide these moments to some extent or another, but there is a type of puzzle that provides one with every single clue. These are cryptic crosswords, which are popular in England and show up in every edition of The Nation, Harper's, and occasionally in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The land of cryptic crosswords is a place where the clues don't make sense, at least on first reading, so you have to figure out what is being asked of you first. Take this clue, from the October 2013 Harper's puzzle by Richard Maltby, Jr.:

Outrageous CEO income not the end of finance (8 letters)

Now I'm not spoiling anything by revealing that there just isn't an eight-letter word that means "Outrageous CEO income not the end of finance." No word exists with that meaning. With cryptics there are rules to learn, but there aren't that many . By their very nature these are tricky puzzles, so the rules are like Alice in Wonderland's "drink me" bottle: straightforward instructions to a land that gets "curiouser and curiouser." Cryptics make extensive use of anagrams, for either part of an answer or the entire answer, and that is the key to solving the example clue.

Cryptic crossword clues are usually divided into two parts, the instructions, which tell you what to do to get the solution, and the definition, which is close to a standard crossword puzzle clue. In the above case the definition is "of finance" and the instructions are everything before that. The key to solving cryptic clues is deciding where the instructions are and where the definition is. This can take a lot of trial and error, but it's a great aha moment once you get it.

Carving up the clue into its component parts is like a mystery with a lot of dead ends planted by the author to throw you off the scent, so-called "red herrings," but once you are "reading the clue correctly" you can be confident that you are right because each word in the clue will play a role. In the best cryptics, like the best mysteries, everything falls into place.

If this were a standard crossword and the clue was "of finance" (8 letters) you might guess economic, and you'd be correct. The instruction part of the clue is telling you how to arrive at economic in a very roundabout way, but it wouldn't be so rich in aha moments if there weren't so many pitfalls along the path. Let's take a closer look at the instructions:

Outrageous CEO income not the end

The big key word here is "outrageous" because it tells you to anagram, in other words "make an outrageous version of" CEO income. It then tells you "not the end," which means to drop the end, the "e" in income, so what you'll actually be anagramming is CEO incom. A little rearranging leads us to economic, and that's the answer. One answer down, the rest of the puzzle to go.

There is no doubt that cryptic crosswords are convoluted, and sometimes maddeningly difficult. Every clue is an adventure, but potentially a lot more satisfying than knowing that the only Brady Bunch sibling who can fit in a six-letter space is Marcia. Sometimes being misled, at least for a little while, can lead you to the most rewarding destinations. The joy of crossword puzzles is like the joy of getting lost in an unfamiliar city and exploring, then finding your way home again.


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 12th 2013, 4:06 AM
Comment by: Frederick E.
Hi Adam, family of Alice?
Not a very difficult cryptic question, is it?

All cross words I have done have been 'easy' by choice and I love them, Now for the 1st time I understand HOW to unravel some of the difficult ones and not just tear them off the screen in a rage.

Thanks, happy duets.

Frederick
Sure2Write
freddie.e@vodamail.co.za
www.sure2write.com
Tuesday November 12th 2013, 4:43 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Welcome, looking forward to more articles. Have always thought hated crosswords. Maybe I don't like being mislead.

Mike
Tuesday November 12th 2013, 5:39 PM
Comment by: Sue M. (Sugar Land, TX)
Thank you, Adam Cooper, for this delightful dissection of the cryptic crossword.

Sue M
Sugar Land, TX

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