“All crossword solvers know that experience,” Mr. Shortz says. “It could be that the brain is working on this unsolved problem subconsciously. Or it could be like an old-fashioned slide projector: Depending on where the carousel is positioned, a slide may drop down into the slot or it may not.”
The mind, concludes the man who should know, is a mysterious thing. Thanks to Arthur Wynne’s devious successors, this almost unimaginable euphoria of trickery has been harnessed for human good – assuming, as crossword solvers do, that there is something wonderful about whiling away large parts of life sorting out hidden enigmas.
But what’s the future of this difficult and not always welcoming pleasure? The crossword evolved alongside the newspaper, a medium that is questioning its delivery mode.
“Crosswords are ideally suited to the print medium,” Mr. Shortz says. “There’s something aesthetically pleasing about filling in squares on paper that you don’t get online. It’s easier and faster to jump around a grid on paper where you can see all the clues at once. But that said, the crossword will survive in a digital world because it’s such a good puzzle. And there may be new things that can be done with online clues that can’t be done in print, like sounds and pictures.”
Mr. Shortz is not shy about saying that the seemingly traditional crossword now makes millions of dollars for The New York Times in online subscriptions, spinoff books and syndication – the brain’s high-order addiction to challenging wordplay is that powerful. At The Guardian in England, says crossword editor Hugh Stephenson, the monetizing of the puzzle has been less successful, but the word-game’s crafty appeal is just as strong.
Mr. Stephenson, who regularly blogs to his community of readers on such subjects as the Americanization of British crossword language and the legitimacy of new words that haven’t found their way into official dictionaries, fields complaints from a global network of Guardian readers who question why they need to know abstruse cricket terms to solve an already daunting puzzle.
“To which my answer,” he says, “is that you’re going for an English crossword, and I’m afraid cricket is a part of being English.”
But why be afraid? It’s all a part of the mystery of life at the crossword level of telling detail, where The Simpsons and Modest Mouse and three-letter Australian birds and a cryptic English game can all share a home inside a tiny grid that tantalizes us with its pains and pleasures.
A taxonomy of clues
Getting beyond the definition-driven clues of traditional puzzles expands the pleasures but also the challenges. The learning curve at entry level is steep. But once you’ve mastered the tricks – and agreed to let your mind wander – the clues don’t seem nearly so twisted. Here are some samples:
The magic of rearranged letters is a favourite of crossword maker Fraser Simpson: “Dog in wild” (DINGO) – which shows the PLEASURE we can get from “messing with the tricky ruse and leap of language.”
Words that sound alike but are spelled differently can produce a two-part clue where the hint is in the sound cue: WURST is “Said to be inferior sausage.” A double-definition clue is used for a single spelling with double meanings: “Small insult” could be a SLIGHT.
A rare bi-directional misdirection: “The wave goes out and back.” (RADAR)
Will Shortz, the New York Times puzzle maker, loves a double pun: “It turns into a different story” (SPIRAL STAIRCASE). The Times also goes in for thematic groaners, like the puzzle titled M-M-M, which produced slightly off answers like CRAZY AS A LOOM
Put SH (quiet) within MARY (a lady) and you get MARSHY, and the kind of head-scratching sentence that sounds like a cryptic clue – “Lady keeping quiet describes a wetland.” Or how about “Being around Japan’s capital, I could be in China.” Which is BEING wrapped around J and I.
Staring you right in the eye, and still hard to spot. A neat HIDDEN word from The Daily Telegraph: “How some answers may be found in clues, some of which I’d denoted.”
The bits-and-pieces approach, often involving abbreviations, many of them British. “It’s a team game, therefore cricket club requires one ruling” (6 letters). “Therefore” means SO, “cricket club” is CC and “one ruling” is the ER of our coins, Elizabeth Regina. A deep breath and you get SOCCER, which non-royalists might have guessed anyway from “team game.”
“Method to make dirt into dire infusion.” (6) The Globe crossword crafter Fraser’s Simpson’s panoply of torture devices includes this elaborate letter-shift clue. Easiest to start with a six-letter word for herbal infusion, TISANE, and work it out backwards. In what way is ”dire” made from “dirt”? Easy: T IS AN E.