Saturday, May 23, 2009

Crossword Conundrum

One more observation from my recent trip to London: foreign crosswords are really, really hard. Of course a crossword in a foreign language is going to be tough--I took a couple semesters of French, plus I studied abroad in France for three months, and I couldn't even conceive of trying a crossword en Francais. In fact, the very prospect of having to link a word by "e accent grave" is terrifying.

But crosswords in English, that's a different story. I've grown to be a pretty enthusiastic crossworder, and I've found through four years of engineering school that the daily crossword is the best way to keep my verbal mind sharp. My classmates evidently agreed with me, and before the end of my undergrad career, we turned the crossword into a daily post-senior-design therapy session.

At the very end of the semester, a handful of crossword teammates and I finally reached our goal of completing the Friday crossword in under 10 minutes, and that was at least as big an accomplishment as finishing the senior design project. So by this point, I actually consider myself not only enthusiastic but also reasonably adept.

All of that confidence in my crosswording abilities turned out to be completely moot once I reached jolly old England, and I found a few reasons why that's the case.

Clue formatting style. American crosswords, like the USA Today crossword that's become pretty much the gold standard in American crosswording, have clues that are phrases as opposed to words, quips or clever statements as opposed to synonyms, and typically three to six letters as opposed to anywhere from three to twelve.

Vocabulary. Say you had the clue "Fast food (8)", and you knew the last letter was "y". This would be immediately recognizable to an English crossworder as "takeaway". But an American puzzler would have a hell of a time trying to figure out how that "y" fit as the last letter of "carryout".

Grid layout. The American style crossword grid makes each word highly dependent on other words: a five-letter word is almost always going to intersect five other words. The British mode is sparser, making elusive clues more difficult to decipher because you have less help.

Want an example? Check out a Guardian crossword as opposed to a USA Today one.

Currently listening: This is the Life, Amy MacDonald

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