Empty columns and or rows devised primarily to confuse?

Published: 18 Sep 2017

A cruciverbalist (Latin crux = cross and verbum = word) is “A person who compiles or solves crossword puzzles; a crossword enthusiast” (Oxford English Dictionary). The earliest recorded instance dates from 1971. The term “cruxverbalist” appeared in a letter written in 1939, quoted in Alexander Waugh’s family biography Fathers and Sons, but this appears to be a hapax legomenon.

I have been a cruciverbalist for over 60 years. My earliest recollection of an interest in word puzzles is when, around 7 years old, I badgered my parents to buy me a Penguin book of 100 crosswords (1953), price two shillings, that had originally been published in The Observer. They were sceptical about my ability to tackle the puzzles, and they were right. I managed to solve just one clue in the whole book and didn’t understand many of the published answers, although a clue about faulty traffic lights introduced me to Kathleen Winsor’s risqué book Forever Amber.

In those days our regular newspaper was The Daily Express. I tackled its blocked puzzle, each day checking the solution of the previous day’s puzzle. It took me about a year to work it out and one triumphant day I solved it completely. I then graduated to The Times, which a classmate and I attempted every day at the back of the science lab, severely impairing our understanding of physics and chemistry.

At 13 I was given a handsome leatherbound edition of Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1959, Revised Edition with Supplement), consulted it repeatedly to near destruction, and had it rebound in buckram. Blessed with an eidetic memory until my late teens, a precious gift now lost, I could recite many of its definitions verbatim (“eclair: a cake, long in shape but short in duration…”), and could even recall the precise place on any page of many individual lemmas.

It was three events in 1964 that turned me into a lifelong addict: the publication of The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book, 50 difficult specialist puzzles collected by Alan Cash and published by Penguin Books; the appearance of the first Observer colour magazine in September 1964, with its puzzles by Derrick Macnutt (“Ximenes”); and the discovery of the weekly house magazine of the BBC, The Listener, now defunct, which contained what was once described by the novelist Vikram Seth, a self-confessed addict, as “the puzzler’s apotheosis”, which survives as “The Listener Crossword” in Saturday editions of The Times.

Eventually, I decided to try my own hand at composition and submitted a puzzle to The Listener. Such was the length of the publication pipeline that I heard nothing, beyond an acknowledgement of receipt, for about five years. Then to my surprise I received a letter from the fastidious vetter of submissions, Jim Evans, telling me that my puzzle was acceptable for publication. His timing was impeccable: “Patrons” by Foxglove appeared on St George’s Day 1981.

Oxford, a home to linguistic philosophers, has more than its fair share of cruciverbalists (or Club of Queer Trades, as Alan Coren once called us, quoting GK Chesterton). In 1989, out of the blue, one of them got in touch: Colin Dexter, many of whose characters, not only Morse and Lewis, are named after cruciverbalists. Would I be interested in setting puzzles for The Oxford Times, along with him and two others? Would I? “Send me a puzzle,” he said, “and we’ll see.” See if it’s any good, he meant! I did, and he invited me round to discuss it. After some light conversation over tea and cakes he pulled out my effort and went through it clue by clue. “Let’s see,” he said, “1 across. Oh yes, that’s very good. But why don’t you do it this way?” And he rewrote the clue, using my original idea, but much more elegantly. “Now what about 5 across? Oh yes, that’s very good. But ...” More rewriting. And so on all the way through. A tactful masterclass in the art of clue-writing. Finally, “You’ll do. Now what about a pseudonym?” Most puzzles are published anonymously or pseudonymously. “Whatever you decide, it must have an X in it,” was his instruction. Colin’s pseudonym was Codex, neatly fabricated from the first letters of his two names. I went home and thought about it. I replaced the J in my initials with an X: XKA, then topped and tailed it: Exkalibur. My puzzle appeared in January 1990 and I contributed every fourth puzzle to the paper for nearly 11 years.

In 1992, another member of what has been called the Oxford Mafia, Don Manley, asked me to contribute puzzles to The Church Times. Not my scene, I suggested, but he reassured me that the paper was very ecumenical. I submitted a sample. OK, he said, but I would have to use my proper name – the paper wouldn’t publish anything pseudonymously. I wondered if my Hebrew name would do. Was it my real name? Well, yes. In fact I was given my Hebrew name before my regular name was registered. So I started publishing puzzles in The Church Times (references strictly Old Testament) under the non-pseudonymous Yosef Kalman ben Shmuel. My father, the “Shmuel” in my patronymic, was highly amused.

In 1998 an invitation from the crossword editor of The Telegraph, Val Gilbert, had me contributing occasional puzzles, when the regular compilers, who included the jazzman Steve Race, had a day off. Some had pairs of clues in rhyming couplets, as a challenge to myself. It’s surprising how many solvers don’t realize that the clues are in verse, or, more accurately, doggerel.

In 2011 the regular composer of the weekly puzzles in the Times Literary Supplement, the TLS, had to go into hospital, and the crossword editor asked if I could fill in for a few weeks. Since he had decided to give composers of the puzzle bylines, I could choose a new pseudonym. Remembering Colin Dexter’s injunction, I wrote down XTLS and out came Praxiteles, the Athenian sculptor whose name I now use in sculpting every fourth puzzle in the paper. Since then other TLS composers have copied the idea. When the regular composer returned he called himself Tantalus; others are Talos and Myrtilus. When Tantalus died his successor, Peter Biddlecombe, who also edits the Sunday Times puzzles, called himself Broteas, after one of the sons of the Titan Tantalus.

A question I am often asked is how long it takes to compose a puzzle. I don’t know. Composing the grid takes about half an hour, but the clues emerge piecemeal, composed hypnagogically, or in the shower, or when walking to and from work. It hardly encroaches on my regular activities. The contest between setter and solver is one that the setter must contrive to lose. He (although pseudonymity gives women equal opportunities, there are vanishingly few female setters) must make the problem challenging without ambiguity or insolubility, avoiding solver frustration.

There is some science in the study of cruciverbalism. Consider, for example, a paper by Friedlander & Fine, “The grounded expertise components approach in the novel area of cryptic crossword solving”. It’s available free on PubMed, and the abstract succinctly describes the solving process and the qualities needed.

Finally, the best clue ever? Everyone has their own favourite. Mine is by another member of the Oxford Mafia, Les May (“Nox”): “Bust down reason? (9)” The answer is BRA/IN/WASH. Oh, and the answer to the title of this piece? Crossword, of course (c[olumn]s + or rows + d[evised]; anagram).


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About the author

Jeff is Honorary Consultant and Clinical Pharmacologist in the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. He is a President Emeritus of the British Pharmacological Society and currently Vice President – Publications. He was Editorin-Chief of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 2002–2007, Editor of Meyler’s Side Effects of Drugs – The International Encyclopedia of Adverse Drug Reactions and Interactions, 16th edition (seven volumes and online, 2015), and co-editor with John Talbot of Stephens’ Detection and Evaluation of Adverse Drug Reactions: Principles and Practice, 6th edition (2011). His weekly blog on medical words appears at blogs.bmj.com/bmj/category/jeff-aronsons-words.

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