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).


Anonymous said...

Do you have copy writer for so good articles? If so please give me contacts, because this really rocks! :)

Elf said...

Sorry, I'm not understanding what you're asking about--