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XI. Miscellaneous Thoughts

Here are a few random, miscellaneous, unrelated thoughts that don't seem to fit anywhere else in this essay about crosswords.  (Having to resort to this is the mark of a bad writer with too much to say.)

A. How to make crosswords harder

After you have acquired some experience with playing crosswords, and especially if you aren't timing yourself, you might find that you want to make the puzzles harder to play.  You can add significantly to the challenge of really easy puzzles in a couple of ways.  I've tried them both several times, and they are fun.

1. One way to make an easy puzzle harder is to scratch through the clue numbers with your pen so thoroughly that they're completely illegible.  Actually, I've found it quicker to slice them out with a #11 scalpel, but not everyone has a supply of scalpels.

Oh, by the way, if you would like for me to perform a surgical procedure on you, for free, I will.  "Have scalpels, will cut," that's my motto.

Anyway, after you've obliterated the clue numbers, just dive right in.  If you find that too tough, scratch through only the Across or the Down clues' numbers.

At first you might think that this big a handicap would make the puzzle impossible, but it really doesn't.  You just have to work harder.  Try it with a puzzle you already think is way too easy.

2. Another way to make a puzzle harder, to really tax your ability to concentrate, is to try doing one without writing in your answers.  Just do the whole thing in your head.  And no, I'm not kidding.  If the puzzle is easy enough, such as those sickly goofs in TV Guide, you really can do it.

3. Update of April 2004: A correspondent made a third suggestion that, at first, I regarded as absurdly difficult.  He says he tries to play a puzzle using only the Across clues, i.e., he cuts and folds back the Down clues.

I've tried this for the last six weeks now on the Tribune Media Services Sunday 21 X 21, and I'm here to tell you it's surprisingly entertaining.  This makes a relatively easy puzzle quite difficult indeed -- I finished only two out of six so far -- but it's satisfying to discover you can fill in Down answers not knowing what the clues are.

Update of April 2005: I've been trying this No-Down-Clues handicap for a year now, and my completion rate has dropped from 33% to maybe half that.  So, it's still not a challenge I would recommend to novices, but if you're looking for an escape from the boredom of the easier puzzles, I recommend even more strongly that you try this.

B. How to get famous

Certain answers are used in crosswords way out of proportion to how often they're used outside crosswords.  And if you think about it, that would pretty much have to be the case.

Invariably, pretty much by definition, those answers are uncommonly used words consisting entirely of commonly used letters.  An example is NENE.  I'd wager that ninety percent of people who've played the various crosswords for more than a few years can tell you what a nene is but that not one person in a hundred in the general population can.  NENE is a great answer for constructors to fill in because it consists of four quite commonly used letters, which means those letters can more easily be fit into the crossing answers.

Here are some others: AARE, AIRE, ALDA, ALOE, ARLO, ARTE, and ASTA.  These are just the first few I could think of off the alphabetical top of my head.  Cruciverbalists know these words by heart.

So, how do you get extra-famous -- like Arlo Guthrie and Alan Alda and Arte Johnson and Asta Charles -- among the crossword set?  You make sure your name fits the following criteria:

C. Brand names

A controversy arises every so often regarding whether it's OK for a crossword to use brand names in the answers.  The reactionary purists take a hard-line position, saying brand names shouldn't appear in the answers at all.  The moderates would allow any brand names that are also un-capitalized words in their own right, such as TIDE and COKE.  And we radicals say anything goes.  (But now I'm wondering about Coke-brand crack.)

So far, the radicals have it.  The New York Times and other high-quality puzzles use brand names freely, so get used to it.

In case you're wondering about Tide and Coke, which I know you were, the deal is this: You can trademark a brand name that is also a normal word only if the product or service is not what the word means.

Let me try that again: You can't name your brand a word that is what the thing you sell is.

Maybe an example would help.  If you operate a banana ranch, you can market your bananas under the name "Chiquita" -- thus, Chiquita™-brand bananas -- but you can't market them under the brand name "Bananas."   However, if you sell blue jeans you may call them Banana™-brand blue jeans, because blue jeans aren't bananas.  They aren't even close.

Furthermore, you can market Banana™-brand blue jeans even if there already is a company selling Banana™-brand floppy disks, because blue jeans aren't floppy disks.  What the courts ask is, "Could anyone in half his right mind confuse the two same-named entities?"

Which reminds me of a well-publicized court fight in the town where I went to college in which the city prosecutor sued a head-shop owner for calling his storefront operation "The Drug Store," alleging that the term was generic and that someone in his right mind could confuse "The Drug Store" with any old drug store.  The city eventually won.

D. Wordplay

A movie named Wordplay about crosswords featuring Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle, made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival of 2006.

You can read some about that HERE, but there are lots of other Internet references because the movie, a documentary directed by Patrick Creadon and produced by his wife, Christine O'Malley, has turned out to be a pretty big deal, big enough that it will be released in theaters across the country starting in June!  According to my e-mail and telephonic conversations with Patrick, who introduced himself to me after reading this little monograph on crosswords, this was a dream they had but never expected to realize.

(And a dream I had never realized I had had is that according to Patrick -- I haven't seen the movie yet -- my name appears somewhere in the teeny, tiny credits.  So, this is as famous as I'm likely to get in the world of crosswords.)

An official Web site promoting the movie is now available HERE.  And there's some more information about Wordplay at the bottom of this page.

Update of February 12, 2006: You can listen HERE to today's NPR podcast of "Puzzle on the Air" in which Mr. Shortz and host Liane Hansen begin by discussing Wordplay.

They also discuss the word podcast, the very one of which you can download from here (4,104,658 bytes, wordplay_podcast.mp3.org,  8 minutes 29 seconds, 64 kbps).  After you download the file, delete the .org at the end and the result will be a standard MP3 file you can listen to on your computer or copy to your MP3 player.


In case you bypassed it above, here's another chance to learn about my offer to perform free surgery on you using my fancy #11 scalpels.

Or you can return to the crosswords home page.


A. How to make crosswords harder

B. How to get famous

C. Brand names

D. Wordplay, the movie

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