Obscure Words

Obscure Words

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There has been much discussion in the comments recently about the use of obscure words in the Daily cryptics.  As you might expect, this problem has not been confined to the Telegraph puzzles. Hugh Stephenson, the Guardian’s crossword editor, has kindly given permission for this extract from his monthly newsletter to be reproduced here.

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There has lately been a mini-spate of complaints about impossibly obscure words appearing in the crosswords, combined with ones to the effect that solvers are now disadvantaged if they do not have access to the internet and Google. “Might it not be a good idea to ban clues where the solution depends on previous knowledge of some barely known definition?” or “Dismal teaming of obscure words with possible solutions. Does the setter speak English?” are a couple of observations that give the flavour of these emails.

It would be invidious to name the setters involved in this correspondence and so I can’t here give specific examples of the words complained of. In principle, however, with the Quicks my rule of thumb is that words should not be included that an averagely intelligent, Guardian-reading person (e.g. myself) could not spell correctly and know the meaning of without having to go to a dictionary. As with all rules there have to be exceptions, such as the spelling of desiccated, haemorrhage, pyrrhic and rarefy. And technical or specialist terms, even those in reasonably common usage, can also cause problems, such as the difference between a cathode and an anode (particularly since an anode seems to be both positively charged in come contexts and negatively in others). There is also the problem that some averagely intelligent, Guardian-reading persons seem to have curious blind spots. For example, Quick No 12,274 on 10 September had the clue “Pet (7)” for TANTRUM, which caused much perplexity. It never occurred to me that some sentence like “Mother’s in a pet today” might cause problems.

With the Cryptics, things are rather different. It seems to me that discovering new words and meanings is part of the pleasure of doing these puzzles, provided of course that there are not too many of them in any one puzzle and that the clue by which the solution is reached is fair.

Which brings one to the question of the internet and Google. The purists say that puzzles should be solved without dictionaries and other aids; or, at least, that the role of dictionaries should be confined to checking whether the solution you think you have worked out from the clue is a real word and what its exact meaning may be; and that they should never be used just for fishing expeditions.

Slightly less pure purists say that it is permissible to use dictionaries and other printed works of reference, but that the use of electronic search engines is beyond the pale.

For my part I cannot see the force of this last distinction. Books of reference (dictionaries, encyclopedias, the DNB, Who’s Who etc) are all now published online and available remotely and free to anyone who has registered at the local authority library. What is the difference between using the hard copy of a publication and its digital version? The real question seems to me to be how much outside assistance does each individual feel happy about using. For example, I personally would regard using the “cheat” facility attached to the interactive online puzzles as akin to cheating against oneself at patience or setting off for an enjoyable walk and then catching a bus half way. But I know from the howls of complaint that come in when something goes wrong with the cheat button that this is not a universal view. In other words, your relationship with the crossword is entirely personal. There is no right and wrong approach.

For those who still set their faces against new technology but want to consult books, Chambers has produced a fine new edition of its “Crossword Lists”, first published in 2005. It claims over 170,000 solutions handily arranged for setters and solvers alike; so that, for example, if you want to run through lists of computer parts or the works of Enid Blyton, you can probably do so quicker than you could online.

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This newsletter gets sent free as an email to those who register with www.guardian.co.uk/crosswords online.

You can also read it from the screen at the same website.


  1. sarumite
    Posted October 10, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for posting such an interesting article BD.

    It’s difficult to disagree with any of Hugh Stephenson’s comments in the above extract.

    It’s so very true that discovering new words and meanings (in moderation) is part of the pleasure of doing cryptic puzzles, whilst in Quickies this is probably not the case.

    Personally, I seldom submit prize crosswords as my satisfaction is fully quenched by completing the grids, particularly the slightly more difficult puzzles such as the monthly Saga.

    However, I do have a problem (with myself), which needs attention, viz. when unable to solve anagrams at first glance, I feel compelled to enter the relevant letters into an on-line solver! :shock:

    I guess this is an extreme example of cheating to the purist??

  2. newtocryptic
    Posted October 12, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m surprised that another factor hasn’t been considered. When puzzling at home I fully agree with everything said by Hugh Stephenson and Sarumite but what about when you are on a long train or plane journey when you have no source of reference? It’s why my vote is for all answers to be cleverly constructed but only with words that would be known to an “averagely intelligent, Guardian-reading person” (or Telegraph in my case) It’s why I was irritated by 25a in Saturday’s otherwise very easy crossword. It was simple to work out but there was no way of confirming the answer without a dictionary to hand. I enjoy learning new words so long as they are increasing my vocabulary but I can’t imagine ever using 25a again!

  3. Pixie
    Posted October 14, 2009 at 10:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    Working out what a “strange” word must be from the clue then looking it to up to find you’ve got it right is one main pleasures in cryptic crosswords for me.

    I wouldn’t want an entire crossword filled with them, but one or two in the grid is fine with me as long as it’s possible to work out the components of the answer from the clue.

    Where a clue’s solution just relies on arcane knowledge with no other possible way to get the answer is when I would moan a (little) bit.

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