Wednesday, February 27, 2008

On the crossword

Crossword puzzles aren't that interesting linguistically. They're interesting. But it's usually for the trivia or problem solving. Do them long enough and you get pretty good at reading some of the common clues within each clue. Some of them are obvious.

When the clue is 'X and Y' the answer will be plural. When its 'X or Y' it'll be singular.

Any time there's a question mark or a 'perhaps' the answer will be a pun.

If the clue is an abbreviation the answer will be one as well.

Any clue asking for something Juan would say or have (eg Juan's week, Juan's goodbye, Juan's snack) is asking for a Spanish answer. Henri and Pierre are French. Hanz and Fritz are German.

Then you have to learn to look out for words that are ambiguous. The verb in 'run out of town' could be an infinitive and the answer could be something like 'repel'. But it could also be a past participle and the answer would be 'repelled' just as easily. And a phrase like 'paid dues' could be past-tense Verb Phrase as in 'she paid the dues' or a passive participial VP as in 'she was paid the dues' or even an adjectival participle 'dues that were paid'.

These ambiguities trip up a lot of people who are just getting into the habit of doing crosswords. And they can trip up people like me who after years and years of daily puzzles are still only mediocre solvers.

Like the clue in my daily Yahoo! puzzle this morning (one of the easier series): Hot flower (4 letters). I know that an Aster is a late bloomer, and a Lily is an Easter flower, and November flower briefly is Mum. I thought that perhaps there was some sort of greenhouse reference here -- or a play on the phrase 'hothouse flower' that I was missing. And the first letter 'l' kept nudging me towards Lily.

Some ambiguities are so obvious we don't consider them. The clue didn't mean flower. It meant flower.

Not [flawɹ̩] but [flowɹ̩]

The puzzle was a good one for lexicographical trivia. The theme (and title): Word Oddities. (Follow the link to do the puzzle). I'm sure dear astute reader that you don't need me to give the answers. I'll just post the theme clues here. For those of you who would like the trivia and don't care for crosswords I'll post the answers as a comment.

I haven't tried to find if these claims of the words' uniqueness or superlativeness are attested.

  • Only word containing three consecutive pairs of double letters (10)

  • Longest number when spelled out in words that has no repeated letters (12)

  • Longest word not containing an a, e, i, o, or u (7)

  • One of the only 12 letter words that typists can produce with just the left hand on a standard keyboard (12)

  • The longest word containing only letters from the second half of the alphabet (10)


  1. bookkeeper





  2. My friend tried to win the Car Talk trivia contest on NPR when the first word was the subject of the question by insisting that "raccoon-nook-keepers" is a longer example. He didn't get the prize.

  3. They probably wouldn't have accepted , either.


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