Over the last few years, I have come to understand that crosswording is a cult. There isn’t much of a middle ground – either you’re drinking the Kool Aid or you don’t know what all the fuss is about (if you do, you just don’t care). Perhaps the puzzles seem off-putting at first because the clues are nonsensical, or the vowels are in the wrong places. But once you begin to learn the secret language of crosswords, understand their customs and rules, a new world of addictive puzzles opens to you.
Me, four years ago: WHAT IS THIS BLACK AND WHITE BOX WITH SMALLER BLACK AND WHITE BOXES INSIDE IT?
Me, circa yesterday: Ooh! A fun Tuesday crossword in the school newspaper! I WILL DEFEAT YOU.
How did this happen? Part of the blame must be placed on having a daily newspaper with relatively easy crosswords in it (ASU’s The State Press). In my freshman year, I also got USA Today, which has a prodigious puzzles section. Through these sacred papers I learned of the Voweled Words (like Aria, Oleo, Aloe, Agee), the Consonant Clues (Sss, TNT, Psst, CXV) and the secret of the Overarching Theme.
Once you understand how vowels and consonants function in a crossword puzzle, a basic foundation of Voweled Words and Consonant Clues is all you need for a kickstart. From that point on you have a holy mission: discovering the Overarching Theme of the puzzle. Filling in all of the answers is just gravy compared to the satisfaction of figuring out the theme. (By the way, crossword puzzles without themes are bogus. Unlike life, crosswords should always have a Greater Meaning.)
Of course, the answers are only part of the puzzle puzzling. Half the battle is understanding the jargon that clues are written in. Par exemple:
- If a clue ends in ?, it is a pun/wordplay or otherwise unexpected answer.
- Two famous last names indicate that the answer is their shared first name. “Lastname AND Lastname” indicates you should add an S to the end of the first name – “Lastname OR Lastname” does not.
- Sometimes crosswords are mean and ask you for a word in a language you don’t speak. The language will be indicated by an abbreviation (Fr., Sp., etc.).
- A clue containing an abbreviation or acronym generally indicates that the answer is itself an abbreviation or acronym.
And so on and so forth. You can see why it’s hard to break into the fanbase – not only must you speak fluent crosswordese and know the tricks of consonants and vowels, but you need to understand it when spoken to you. Eventually, you will know instinctively that the proper response to “a fencing blade” is EPEE and the Emmy award-winner from M*A*S*H is always Alan Alda.
One area where jargon can not save you is cultural references. Here it becomes important to find a crossword writer who is of roughly the same generation as yourself. Good luck to Millennials trying to wade through a mire of clues relying on your knowledge of 1970s television shows. *shudder* Crossword puzzles should be challenging, but not impossible. If you can’t get past a handful of answers, you should probably be looking for a different crossword source. Tip: the Android app Shortyz has an impressive array of free crosswords and an interface that is both intuitive and customizable.
The crossword cult is not for everyone. But if you do decide to join up, you will have an impressive advantage when it comes to word-based game shows like Wheel of Fortune, Lingo, and Who’s Still Standing. What better incentive do you need?