Thursday, March 09, 2006

Crosswords Sometimes Evoke Cross Words

Most crossword puzzles are not merely vocabulary tests. They're also trivia tests. Sometimes moreso than they are tests of one's working lexicon. What's really annoying is when they are tests of language trivia--words that normal people would never know and that even crossword afficionados would never have occasion to use in even the most extreme intellectual emergencies.

On the other hand, a year or so back, the San Jose Mercury did use the word adit in an article about closing old mine entrances in the Almaden-Quicksilver area. (Adit being a mine entrance...sure, it's quicker, but who understands you when you use it?) But I've never yet had anyone say to me, "Hold on, I don't seem to have my etui" (needle case or ornamental case); and maybe it's only because we live in a monogamous society that I've never had occasion to ask where the oda (harem room) is. Perhaps when I become ambassador to Bahrain (capital of: Manama; or--capital of: dinar).

The San Jose Merc's crossword puzzle is a comfortable speed for me. It takes me 15-20 minutes to complete, and I can almost always eventually fill in the whole thing, although it's challenging enough that I have to work across and down and across and back again and in and out and puzzle a few things out. Still, it is interesting to note how much one needs to know to be able to get through it.

For example, aside from what I'd consider "normal vocabulary" (and nontricky clues), to do this morning's puzzle, one had to know:

  • People: Meg Ryan, Elvis's middle name (Aron), Nanette Fabray (never heard of her), Willie Mays, Edna Ferber (never heard of her before I started doing xwords. Still don't know what she's known for except having a first name that's popular in crosswords), Edna Best (ditto), Len Dykstra (who?), Raoul Walsh (who?), Yoyo Ma, Lenin's love (Yoko Ono)
  • Places: Florida city (yeah, like there's only one... Ocala, in this case), Laguna Beach (CA), San Miguel (CA), Uru. neighbor (know what countries border Uruguay), French city (yeah, like there's only one... Caen in this case), Las Vegas, where Nova Scotia is
  • Other languages: Spanish lariat (reata or riata), Seine sights (Seine is a french river containing islands, hence iles), Corrida cheer (olĂ©), modus operandi, Alain's affirmative (Alain being a French name, hence oui)
  • Esoteric vocabulary: Eosin (ink ingredient), cote (dove shelter), eclat (great brilliance), tael (Old Chinese money), oda (harem room)
  • Miscellaneous: Madonna hit "La ____ Bonita", three-letter names of Greek letters, characters in Lohengrin,who and what Scrooge is, Hawaii Five-0 villain

Some of these were easily within grasp in the parts of my brain that I never knew were devoted to trivia, but many weren't. And you surely know some that I didn't. What a balancing act for a crossword puzzle creator and editor, to aim at a reasonable audience without knocking them backwards in a dead swoon after half an hour (like the NY Times Sunday xword does to me--usually I can get most of that one if I work at it for a couple of hours. But who has that kind of time? And it becomes frustrating when I have to look up half the words in a crossword puzzle dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, almanac, or encyclopedia).

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Pun is Worth a Thousand Words

It's hard for me to imagine people who love language not also loving puns, but --gasp-- it's true, some folks are like that. But I'm not like them and I like them (there's a turn of phrase for ya). So here are some nice, short ones I've found or remembered recently:

  • What did the bald man say when given a solid-gold comb?
    Thanks, I'll never part with this.

  • A dog walked into a saloon wearing a gunbelt and with one foot in a bandage. He said:
    "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw."

  • What do you call a fish with no eyes? (Note: This is a tricky one. The answer is much clearer when written, but the pun in the question really works only when spoken (hint--think of homophones for "eye").)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

License Plates

Ah, the American dream: Expressing oneself through your very own license plate and frame.

Today's intriguing combination on a car:

License: BYAVOWL (or maybe BYAVWEL)

Frame: M_T_RC_CL_ / Thanks Pat and Vanna!

Soooo... did they win the car on Wheel of Fortune? Did they win a motorcycle on Wheel of Fortune? Are they simply fans of WoF? I wanted to leap out of my car, run forward (we were stopped at a light), pound on their window, and ask. But I didn't. So I'll probably never know.

And what a cultural phenomena, that even I, who almost never watch TV and have probably never watched Wheel of Fortune, still know that it's Vanna White and Pat Sajak and that contestants can "Buy a vowel" to complete a mystery word... Is there anyone in America today who does NOT know that? Is the program even still on? Who knows?