As Oliver Hardy liked to say to Stan Laurel, “This is another fine mess you’ve got me into,” but since there’s nobody else for me to blame, I might as well forge ahead and get this look at crossword puzzles over with.
Now, take that word "cruciverbalist." It does not mean to talk about a crucifix – not even close. A cruciverbalist is a person who likes crossword puzzles, but is otherwise pretty harmless.
As with almost everything else, there are lots of varieties; something for everybody from amateur to expert cruciverbalists, plus the rest of the world’s population who want nothing to do with these strange people. But fear not. As long as solvers and nonsolvers can refrain from declaring war on each other, we still have a chance at achieving world peace.
Taking a closer look, we find that there are dozens and dozens of types of crossword puzzles. That’s because nobody bothers to stop other people from creating a new kind every now and then, which results in there being a crossword puzzle to suit almost everybody who is so inclined.
But creating a crossword puzzle isn’t always easy.
For example, any word that appears in the Oxford English Dictionary can be used, and that includes slang, technical terms and even abbreviations. However, all words must be defined, and that definition becomes the Clue, which should lead you to the word that fits into the puzzle.
Got it? (Well, don’t lose any sleep over it, as things will become clear as we progress.)
An example of one of the simpler clues might tell you to fill in the blank, as in _______ Kong. (four letters). You have a choice of only two possibilities, "King" or "Hong," and your answer has to fit into any other words it may cross – which is where the term crossword comes in.
Sometimes, a clever constructor will include long words, and there is no limit to that length as long as it fits with the rest of the puzzle, but when you’re creating a crossword puzzle, there are plenty of rules to follow, and you soon discover you just might be "tangling with a tiger" and have bitten of more than you can chew, so maybe you’d better stick to solving, not creating.
The crossword puzzle itself must form a perfect square – no exceptions. A puzzle of any other shape is a Novelty Puzzle, which uses another set of rules.
You are not allowed to use false clues, but you can use jokes and puns or almost any other device as long as they lead the solver to the correct solution. Some of the best clues can be misleading because they can be read more than one way, a device that many solvers enjoy, while it may spark murderous thoughts in others. However, as in the game of love, all is fair in the crossword game as long as you don’t cheat.
A crossword puzzle can be almost any size. The average size usually published in your daily newspaper may be up to 24 squares by 24, and another rule is that it must be symmetrical; that is, the unused blacked-out squares must lie in the same position in all four quarters of your diagram, which can make things quite difficult indeed.
But you’re a solver, so just quit your bellyaching and get to work, but bear in mind that constructors can be very devious, so you need to be suspicious of every clue – every last one.
Now that you know what to watch out for, you’re ready to tackle a puzzle that some consider a true achievement – if you can complete it.
Try the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle.
It’s one of the larger ones, can include words from almost any situation, profession or pastime, and if the clues aren’t indirect enough to suit your warped sense of good sportsmanship and gamesmanship you’ll probably find various examples of wordplay, jokes and vague references designed to lead you astray if you’re not careful.
It’s a classic test for almost any solver - and if you decide to try, you will be well advised to keep your dictionary close by, as you’re probably going to need it more than once.
However, after you’ve conquered this beauty (not!), you still have one more goal to achieve before you can consider yourself "pretty good at crossword puzzles."
Next time, solve the Times puzzle in ink.
That’ll keep you humble.
Just remember, “to err is human, but when the eraser wears out before the pencil, beware”!
— Newton columnist Mike Morton writes weekly for the Kansan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org