Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: Cruciverbalism

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Cruciverbalism

Author: Stanley Newman (with Mark Lasswell)

Author's web page:

Publisher: Harper Collins

Date: 2006

Length: 142 pages

Quote: “Crosswords should be fun, they should be challenging, and they should be enjoyed by any reasonably literate person.”

Are there rivalries and controversies even in the weird little world of constructing crossword puzzles? There are. Stanley Newman proudly presents himself as part of a “new wave” of puzzlers (cruciverbalists) who were, among other things, tired of “crosswordese” words like adit, agar, alee, eer, nene, and olio. And not averse to puns: “Don't be ashamed, don't be a sheep—the crossword world will accept ewe.”

Tips for solving Newman's kind of puzzles? Don't be ashamed of using “performance-enhancing reference works.” Feel free to use an erasable pencil or pen (Newman assumes you have those lying about). For Newman and like-minded puzzle constructors, the easiest puzzles usually appear on Monday, and the level of difficulty rises steadily toward the weekend.

Newman also provides some historical trivia. Early crosswords were “magic squares” of a few words of the same length, not linked together into full-sized puzzles. “Word-squares” were found in first-century Pompeii. Crossword puzzles in their modern form are a twentieth-century invention. Brand names were banned from most newspapers' puzzles into the 1960s or 1970s; now they're staples.

Doing crossword puzzles, Newman cheerfully reports, has been shown to reduce the risk that people will develop Alzheimer's Disease. The electronics-obsessed younger generation don't seem to be discovering the joys of cruciverbalism. Aging baby-boomers are, however, pushing themselves to solve a puzzle a day.

The position of this web site is of course that anyone who can spare the money should subscribe to at least one printed newspaper. One reason: I have actually encountered employers who, given a choice among qualified candidates for a job, chose the one who read lots of newspapers. (I thought the Post, Times, City Paper, Gazette, Pennysaver, and Pregonero made a respectable reading list in Washington; the person who was hired also subscribed to New York, Baltimore, and Atlanta dailies.) Another reason: Although the headline news in big city papers can sound like an overdose of alarm and despondency if you think of yourself as young, poor, and helpless, these newspapers are edited for solid citizens who can help. Another reason: there are actually a lot of uses for old newsprint, which can drastically reduce your use of other paper products, and when your supply exceeds your needs you can sell the excess newsprint to recyclers. And also, far down the list of subsidiary reasons: when you buy a newspaper, you can work the crossword puzzle. (If the writing device on your desk is not erasable, write small neat letters you can cross out if necessary.)

What kind of person constructs crossword puzzles? Some of the best known “constructors” are certified word-nerds, like Margaret Petherbridge Farrar (married to the publisher), Will Shortz, Fred Piscop, and of course Stanley Newman. On the other hand, “a healthy portion of crossword puzzles...are created by...'guests of the state,' as the saying goes...These guys have plenty of time on their hands, obviously, plus convicts are perhaps the only people around to whom the 50 bucks or so that they'd receive for their hours of labor actually looks like a handsome reward.”

Despite their popularity in penal institutions, crossword puzzles are supposed to reflect a rather nice and genteel world. “You're not likely to see anything more serious than the FLU in a puzzle. CANCER is just an astrological sign in our world. And we've won the war on drugs: OPIUM is just a pricey fragrance.”

On the other hand, although Newman repeatedly denounces the use of the word “esne” (one layer in the feudal servile class) and similar “crosswordese” cliches, in some ways his rules are looser than the rules that were generally followed prior to the mid-1980s. Answers consisting of more than one word no longer have to be specially marked in their clues. Newman feels that “commonly understood words from other languages can spice up the grid.” Cute clues (“Bachelor's last words: I DO”) are often positively encouraged.

Slightly misleading clues are also encouraged these days: “constructors love anything that distracts or disorients solvers—and, of course, solvers like it too, because that's a substantial part of the fun,” and so Newman particularly likes “Half of AD: ANNO.” And clues with two perfectly good answers: “Actress Thompson” could refer to EMMA or SADA; “German river” could be SAAR or RUHR; “old French coin” could be SOU or ECU.

What does it take to be an excellent cruciverbalist? In addition to a good vocabulary, Newman says, it takes a good base of general knowledge (of pop culture as well as the classics), curiosity, the mental flexibility to work out that “Champion rider” might refer to GENEAUTRY, and...practice. And, of course, this being the yuppie generation, social networking can't hurt..."Crossword University Cruises" are scheduled at Newman's web site.

Cruciverbalism is a Fair Trade Book. If you send salolianigodagewi @ $5 per book + $5 per package for shipping, we'll send 10% of the total price, or $1, to Newman or a charity of his choice. (If you want four copies, you send us $25, and Newman or his charity gets $4.)