Word Freak

April 1978 was a watershed momemt when I first time that I completed an entire Sunday NY Times.  Finally I felt that I could legitimately call myself a cruciverbalist.  Since then, the Sunday NYT crossword has become a weekly ritual, supplemented with crossword anthologies for long plane rides and vacations.

That achievement 33 years ago is more meaningful than today simply because back then there were few life lines.  All I had available was an outdated World Book Encyclopedia, a Webster’s collegiate dictionary, a Roget’s thesaurus and maybe a friend who was really good at sports or Biblical trivia.  Now, the internet makes the puzzles pathetically easy to solve.  You can just type the clue into Google, or there is a guy named Rex Parker who solves and posts the answers the same day the puzzle is published.  However, it is a point of honor to only resort to the internet when all other attempts have been exhausted.  But at the same time I think that the internet has contributed to the increasing obscurity of the clues.  There are software programs that will automatically providethe “fill” for the puzzle, i.e. the small words between the key longer words.  The puzzle creator of 1978 would simply not know the 1952 nominees for best Oscar, or the first name of a Liberian dictator.  So although the unaided effort is always more satisfying,  I have concluded that there is no shame in seeking internet help for ridiculously obscure clues. 

Over the years I have developed a very specialized crossword vocabulary.   I have noticed that these strange words tend to have the letter “e” in them.  This is the most common vowel in the English language and thus for the constructor an “e” laden word facilitates coming up with crossing words.  I remember one crossword tour de force that distinguished itself by using no other vowel than “e,” which became delightfully apparent about halfway through the puzzle. 

So for those of you embarking on a career in cruciverbalism, here is a smattering of key vocabulary words.  I can assure you will never use these words conversationally, unless you are lucky enough to be the guest of honor at crossword convention:

Etui:  a decorated needle case:

I actually would like to own an etui, even a plain one would do.  I am constantly losing darning needles, which I need to sew in the loose ends of knitting projects.  Because darning needles are dull, the more readily available pin cushion will not work.  Any store selling such a necessity has long since closed locally, requiring an annoying trip to a big box craft store at the mall to buy a needle.   

Ewer: a pitcher of water

A ewer seems to best describe the picture of water specificallyat the bedside (Vermeer), or perhaps that pitcher that is used for a sponge bath (Mary Cassat).  Unfortunately, it does not seem to describe the water pitcher you might routinely use to fill your dinner guests’ water glasses, in which case you could use this word routinely. 








 Aglet:  those little plastic or metal thingies at the ends of shoelaces

The aglet made a major contribution to footwear, and it would be nice to know that a Mr. Aglet came up with this clever solution to frayed shoelaces.  I am glad I secretly know the name of this critical item, but in public I generally just refer to them as “those thingies.”

I would also recommend that you bone up on quasi-famous people who have lots of  “e’s” in their names.  Some of the regulars include:

R.E. Lee, i.e. the confederate general:

The clue to this one often involves an oblique reference to the Civil war, such as “visitor to Appomattox,” or Davis general (referring to the more obscure Jefferson Davis). 

Erte: An art deco designer

I have come to know Erte well through crossword puzzles, but the first time I ever laid eyes on who or what he did was through the attached picture.  He apparently designed all sorts of clothes, and if there is a 4 letter word for scarf designer, it is always Erte.

Eero: Architect and furniture designer

His last name is Saarinen, and he is most famous for designing the St. Louis arch.  His father was also an architect whose first name was Eliel, but even though this name also has two “e’s” in it, I have never seen him in a crossword.   For many years I confused the pro golfer named Gene Sarazen with Eero Saarinen, due to the vauge similarity of their last names and the fact that their first names both have 4 letters with a second letter of “e”

Crosswords puzzles occasionally lapse into foreign languages, but my rudimentary high school French, Spanish have all been adequate – all I really have to remember are the numbers and maybe a few simple verbs.  I occasionally come across the word “née,” which is a French word referring to a maiden name, or an epée, which is the sword used in fencing.  Don’t panic when the clue refers to Latin, because the answer is almost always amo, amas, or amat, referring to the verb “love.”  Clues alluding to Caesar’s last words are always ettu,  i.e. referring to “Et tu, Brute,” but don’t confuse ettu with Attu, the western most Aleutian island.  The nifty piece of trivia here is that this rocky outpost hosted the only WWII land battle on US soil between Japan and the US. 

My German is nonexistent and I rely on Nick’s high school German for anything other than eine or drei (forget zwei, that “z” makes it rare in crosswords).  He always yelps in protest when I ask for assistance, since his high school German was a token and dismal failure.  In fact his disdain for crosswords is so complete that his response to my lifelines would fall into the same category.  However, he tends to be more helpful if I ask about cars or business, and sometimes I ask him what “Big Blue” is even though I am pretty sure that it is IBM.   A little bit of WWII history is also helpful, again focusing on words that contain “e’s.”  Essen often pops up as the German industrial center in the Ruhr valley.  A more obscure clue refers to Krupp Works, the Nazi armament center located there.  Hitler’s architect just has to be Speer (again with the “e’s”), who ended up organizing the slave labor in Essen. 

The corollary to obscure words are obscure clues.  In fact, the degree of difficulty of a crossword puzzle is mostly related to the creativity of the clues.  One of the most common tricks is the decoy – several times I have seen the clue “French bread”  and the novice will take the clue literally and think along the lines of baguette, or the French word for bread, i.e “pain.”  But the experienced solver will go one step further and realize that the word “bread” is actually referring to money, so the answer is either “euro,” “franc,” “sous” or “ecu.”  Along a similar vein, the clue “Nice summer” is actually referring to the town of Nice, and the answer is été, the French word for summer.  Another unexpected use of a word is the clue “Hardy girl,” which does not refer to female pluck or vigor.  The answer is always “Tess,” the heroine in Thomas Hardy’s novel, “Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  How about the clue “van trailer?”  The first instinct is to think of some sort of vehicle, but what “trailer” really refers to is a suffix to the word “van.”  The answer is “essa,” which forms the woman’s name Vanessa.  In the last week’s crossword I struggled with the clue “garage opener,” which had me thinking along the lines of a clicker.  However, the word definitely had to end in “dg,” which seemed impossible.  Finally, I realized the answer was “hard g,” referring to the phonetics of the first letter of garage.   Then there is the bad pun as a clue; recently the answer to “egg drop” was not Chinese soup, but “ovulation.”

Nick finds these contrivances unbearable, but creative clues are a necessity to fill the otherwise boring words surrounding the main theme of the puzzle, often suggested by the title of the puzzle.  These themes are always clever, and there is a very satisfying “aha” moment when you crack it.  A recent puzzle was titled, “You Are Here,” and it turned out the letters “U” and “R” were added to common expressions.  The clue “Protection in the City”, after much effort, became “urban deodorant,” which involved adding a “ur” in front of the personal hygiene product “Ban Deodorant.”  Once I got the trick, the rest of the puzzle fell into place.  The clue “traditional brain doctor” added UR to neoconservative to make “neuroconservative” and the clue “Schedule at a Vegas chapel” turned “holy matrimony” into “hourly matrimony.”

Someday I would like to create a crossword puzzle, and I have my theme all ready.  It would be titled “R.I.P,” perhaps published on Memorial Day, and would contain various idioms for death, clued as follows:

Clue: Answer                                       

Florist style:  Pushing up daisies                       

Gangster style:  Wear a cement overcoat

Agrarian style:   Bought the farm

Ichthyologist  style:  Sleeps with the fishes

Narcoleptic style:  Take a dirt nap

Reptilian style:  Assume room temperature

Ma Bell style:  In the horizontal phone booth

The missing words in the following puzzle are a set of anagrams (e.g. like post, stop, spot) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  One of the missing words will rhyme with either the previous or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  This is a hard one so good luck! Scroll down for answers.

Don’t ever assume that crossword puzzle clues are referring to something * * * * * * *

When French bread refers to money,  it’s time to retrain your brain.

A former Giant is not some * * * * * * *  ogre, but a baseball player called Mel Ott,

And clues in French, Spanish, Latin and German test your skills as a polyglot.

 Remember that “In his altogether in Eden” means he’s wearing his birthday suit

So the answer is Adam, that crazy  * * * *   * * * who dared eat forbidden fruit. 







Answers:  mundane, unnamed, nude man

Posted in

Leave a Comment