Posts Tagged ‘cruciverbalist’

Regular readers will have noticed I’m in a slump. This is because other things have been getting in the way of blogging, and those things include drinking, reading, and crosswords. The drinking thing is something of a pain because I’ve always wanted to believe that writers need to drink to release their inner muse, and that a few shots will result in screeds of witty, pithy, and wildly popular text. Well, that may have worked for Hemingway but I’ve discovered that a few beers will make me so tired that signing my name at the bottom of the bar tab is as pithy as my scribbling gets. There’s little chance of my hammering out the Great American Novel if I continue my almost nightly rounds of toping.

Reading is also a perilous pursuit for anyone who wants to write. That’s simply because it’s a damn sight easier to enjoy other people’s stuff than pen your own. There’s a double tragedy here as well; while you’re reading, you can’t be writing, and if the writing is good, you end up feeling miserable because you realize you’re never going to be that skilled. If you also factor in that when you read a lot, you discover your brilliant ideas for articles, short stories, and novels have already been done. Fifteen years ago I toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Sigmund Freud as a detective. Then Jeb Rubenfeld wrote The Interpretation of Murder in 2006. Bang goes that idea.

crossword puzzle

The other distraction, crosswords, is an illness I’ve suffered for since I was sixteen and discovered The Guardian cryptic crossword. Since then, I’ve moved to the cryptics in The Independent, The Times, and The Daily Telegraph – which also seems to have paralleled my slow shift from socialism to libertarianism, a not unusual progression with folks as they age. [1]

Since moving to the US, I found that cryptic crosswords are a peculiarly British phenomenon, with most American preferring what I’d call a “regular” or “quick” crossword, which is basically a vocabulary test. If the answer is zebra, an American clue would be something along the lines of “Striped horse,” whereas a British cryptic clue would be “Frenchman talks about underwear in the zoo.” [2]

Of course, it’s not enough for crossword lovers simply to be called “crossword lovers.” No, they want an actual word that sounds impressive, and can even be an answer to the clue “Lucrative cribs for crossword puzzler!” [3]

Enter the word cruciverbalist, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as;

A person who compiles or solves crossword puzzles; a crossword enthusiast.

It is a very recent word, and by “recent” I mean “in my lifetime” or “later than 1960.” In the 1971 summer edition of Crossword magazine, we see the comment;

A succinct word to describe people who regularly attempt to solve crossword puzzles. A number of subscribers, including Jonathan Crowther, one of our crossword contributors, proposed “cruciverbalist,” while several others suggested “cruciverbian.”

There’s a reference to Auberon Waugh, the British writer, using the word “crux-verbalist” in 1939, but this is in Alexander Waugh’s 2004 book, Father’s and Sons, an autobiography of his family, so it could be a confabulation based on a mishearing or misreading of something Auberon did just before the Second World War.

A quick search of the Corpus of Historical American shows no record of cruciverbalist. Even the Corpus of Contemporary American only has one example, and that’s from a 2011 novel by Parnell Hall called The Kenken Killings: A Puzzle Lady Mystery. And the British National Corpus fares no better, also scoring a spectacular zero. So clearly it’s somewhat of a niche word, probably only used by cruciverbalists to refer to other cruciverbalists.

Not surprisingly, its origin is Latin. The cruci– element is the combining form of the word crux meaning “cross,” and a verbalist is someone “who deals in, or directs his attention to, words only, apart from reality or meaning.”  (OED)

Ultimately, it is derived from crossword, another not-so-old word that is recorded in the early 20th century as “cross-word” and later as “crossword.” The actual crossword puzzle began appearing in the UK toward the end of the 19th century, and the first ever published crossword in a newspaper is credited to Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne, who emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to work at the Pittsburgh Press in 1891, and then moved to New York to work on the New York World newspaper. There he created the “word-cross” puzzle, which became the “cross-word” after a type-setting mistake, and ultimately ended up as the “crossword.” [4]

So if you’ve never taken on cryptic crosswords before, I’ll leave you with three clues to ponder on.

(a) Discovered calf in grass (8)

(b) Cheese stored in Baroque fortress (9)

(c) Power plant lacks a spiritual leader (6)

Try them out then check out the answers in the Notes at 5.

[1] For my affliction, I buy two cryptic crossword books once a year when I take a trip to the UK. I also have the Guardian Crosswords app for Android, which gives me five cryptics and six “quicks” every week. It’s a monthly subscription but it costs less than a large beer and has less of an effect on my liver.

[2] For my non-cryptic friends, the clue breaks down as follows: “talks about” suggests you need to take into account the sound of the target word; “Frenchman” suggests there’s an accent to the sounds; “underwear” points you to an item of clothing; and “in the zoo” refers directly to the solution. So, the “underwear” is the bra, or as a Frenchman might say, “zee bra,” which is a close homophone for zebra. It’s this sort of thinking that makes cryptic crosswords much more entertaining than simple “here’s a definition, so what’s the word?” puzzles.

[3] Cruciverbalist is an anagram of “lucrative cribs.” Anagrams are another staple in the types of clues that cryptic crosswords use.

[4] Wynne also spent some time as a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and orchestra is a famous anagram for “cart horse.”

[5] Cryptic clue solutions:
(a) revealed: the direct clue is “discovered” but you put veal (the calf) inside reed (the grass) to get revealed.
(b) Roquefort: the word is hidden in “…baroque fortress.”
(c) rector: the direct clue is “spiritual leader” and the “power plant” is a reactor, and if it “lacks a” you are left with rector.

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