by Sheila Connolly
I love crossword puzzles—even those elaborate punny ones—and I treat myself to the New York Times Sunday one, which usually takes me the better part of a week to finish, since I work on it only during commercials while I watch television, or during the parts of shows that are really boring, like sports reports.
|Will Shortz, the all-knowing |
editor of the NYT puzzles
Trying to complete the early puzzles (I'm working them in order) has been challenging and interesting—and shows how much popular culture has changed over the intervening years. This is my seat-of-the-pants analysis, but so far I've made a number of observations:
--the puzzles from the war years are filled with references to geography in the Pacific and military terms, as well as some associated clues: for example, Native Hindu in the British Army, (I got that one), or Nazi submarine base in Belgium.
--there is a pervading assumption that the puzzle-doer (puzzler?) is well educated, since the clues include many references to plays from various countries, foreign languages, science, geography and history. Take spirit worshipped in Thailand, or pertaining to the armpit (huh? There's a word for that?).
--then there are the clues that completely mystify me—and there are lots of them—like arrogators (no, it's not a Japanese alligator—shame on you), or the gadids of the title.* Or hakenkreuz.
Sure, there are answers in the back of the book, and on one page the editor admits that the puzzle "may require a visit or two to an unabridged dictionary to complete." Gee, thanks. I for one believe that using a dictionary is cheating. I'm going to fill in only those words that I know or can tease out based on what other letters I've filled in. But I'll admit that gadids stumped me, so I turned to my trusty dictionary (one not much younger than the puzzle)—and it wasn't there. I had to look for it (gasp) on the Internet to find the answer, and I'm still left wondering how on earth I could have known that unless I was an ichthyologist. I ask you, is that fair?
But looking at these puzzles raised for me a bigger question: have our education and our cultural standards changed so much in the fifty-plus years since the early puzzles appeared? Or were the puzzles targeted at a rarified few who could have a hope of finishing any one of them? It appears that the creators assumed a breadth of knowledge that is, by current standards, staggering. (I feel the same way when confronted with British puzzles, where every other clue seems to be an inside joke that you will understand only if you attended Oxford or Cambridge in the 1920s.)
Or are we just getting dumber and/or more impatient? Over the past few years we have watched mobile devices proliferate—and now our communications have to be condensed into 140 words. Gone are the elegant quotations of yesteryear; language is reduced to a codes (IMO).
I wish I had statistics on who does the more complex crossword puzzles these days. They still appear in newspapers (where newspapers survive—can you do a puzzle in an on-screen version?), so someone must want them there. But even so, the clues that challenge one's mind and memory seem to be dwindling down; there are more references to television characters than to Greek gods. I know, I know—these are intended as entertainment, not a cultural pop quiz. But it still makes me sad. What we've gained in speed, we've lost in subtlety and nuance and richness in our language.
Do you enjoy crossword puzzles?
*In case you really, really want to know, according to TheFreeDictionary.com, a gadid is "A fish of the family Gadidae, which includes the cods and the hakes." And Hakenkreuz is the German word for a swastika.