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The Cruciverbalist Honeymoon – and Other Tips of the Trade


The crossword puzzle is the grandpa of word puzzles, and it shows no sign of slipping in its appeal. Recent studies suggest that a daily crossword might help solvers fend off the dementia that comes with maturity – you know, old-timer’s disease. I jump-start my brain each morning with a cross word (or two), no, I meant crossword or two, and then I grab a math puzzle and some coffee. I can sense the synapses sparking one at a time as I try to look at “wave on the beach” (four letters) from eight different perspectives. Knowing none of the letters, I decide to come back to it. In the next block I see “piece of hardware,” also four letters, and I start to wonder if I’ll ever get this solution started.
I know many smart folks who don’t have the time or patience for crosswords. Our modern society and its technologies can occupy our minds and hands for just about all of our waking hours – if we allow it. I know some who have given crosswords a shot, but when they encounter “Florida city” in five letters and Miami does not fit they say, “Who cares?” in so many words, and they give up and wad the page. Why, then, the popularity of puzzles and the enormous commercial industry which produces them? I think perhaps that there are thousands of us who didn’t give up, and, through numerous encounters with cruciverbal obstacles, have picked up the lingo and discovered some of the psychological motives of the constructors. They are relatively few in number – the constructors, not the motives – and you get to know their favorite words and tricks.
I’ve been taking some notes about these tricks, and have begun a compendium of baseline knowledge needed for crossword success. Lacking the space for compendiousness, I’ll share a few ideas here. Most of them can be summarized with the words, “go ahead, get your vowels in an uproar!”
Some clues are meant to misdirect you, so you must attend the details. Is the answer plural or past tense? A wave at the beach could be from – the surf, a person, or a whole raft of waders, but one "on the beach" is a wave in the sand, or a dune. There are not as many choices as first occur to you. Crosswords are hard to construct, especially if you have too many consonants clashing with other consonants. Vowels are a constructor’s best friends, and so the alternative five-letter Florida city in crosswords is Ocala. Bank on it. Using that logic, I list some other one-of-a-kind responses. There is only one month in a Spanish year, and that’s enero (January). The only pad for a puzzle is a steno pad, and the one Villa D’____ in Italy is Este.
So when you are stumped, think of a vowel-rich word, or one that has vowels in unusual positions. A tricky clue might be merely an attempt to disguise the answer “ate” or “eat” – clues such as wolfed down, polished off, or dug in. “Irate” is another grid-filling help, and teed off might be the clue. Of course “teed off” might be the clue for began or drove instead. Steady now – take heart, hart, or Harte. There are many other clues with almost always one practical answer. The only ___ Miss is Ole Miss, the only four-letter first name in mystery is Erle (Stanley Gardner), and the constructor’s favorite first name for a Hollywood director is Elia (Kazan). Know the differences between Uta Hagen, Uma Thurman, Brian Eno and Emo Phillips.
Oh, I may have oversimplified the task a bit. There are many prefixes for “bone-related,” such as ossa, osse, ossi, oste, osteo, and osto, but you will note that the vowels are well-represented.

We emphasized that crosswords are heavily laden with vowels, but we have merely scratched the surface with a few examples. Now, rather than present you with a laundry list of mots full of o’s, I found a vehicle to make my additional examples more interesting. Luckily, my favorite muses Erato and Urania sent me a poser, the answer to which I am able to make very vowel-full: “What if two crossword constructors fell in love and got married?”

The Cruciverbalist Honeymoon

We begin with a word or two about the way Art and Sue got married. After exchanging vowels, they eloped to Tahoe naturally. It just happened to be the week of the jai alai matches too. The hotel had laid complimentary Oreo cookies on the pillows. The couple polished those off while making nervous chat about Al Gore and the Beatles. That first night, they called room service and ate in. They munched on feta, brie and casabas, and sipped a tad of soave while they discussed carrots, carats, karats, and carets. They discovered they had much in common besides making crossword puzzles. They both had broken their left ulnae as kids, and they both consistently confused Elihu Root with Uriah Heep. Art thought he smelled a rat when the waiter tried to collect a second tip, but the man turned red as a beet when he remembered getting the first one.
Things heated up when they talked of the worries aplenty of a jockey atop a horse going apace. Art’s favorite horse was the roan, while Sue liked the arab. They agreed that author Umberto Eco, actors Ed Asner and Teri Garr, and tennis legend Arthur Ashe were all first-rate. On the other hand, they were both eager to see Pee Wee Reese, Ilie Nastase, and the SST retired from their avocations in puzzles; as to the French impressionists, take your pick: Renoir, Corot, Degas, Manet or Monet.

During the entree of beouf roulades things fell silent for a time. Perhaps they were thinking of their next excursion. Would it be Oslo, Orono, or Belize in the month of enero? Oh heck, they’d be happy in a tepee in the Dakotas! But that next trip seemed aeons away as night fell. They embraced on their balcony while staring up at the Pleiades – the seven sisters of the heavens which are nestled between Taurus the bull and Orion the hunter. Before bed, Sue made sure she was picture perfect in the ogee-framed mirror next to the bureau.

They talked late into the night about anything and everything – how the various composers treated the hymn Dies Irae; what Tolkien’s ent and orc creatures really represented; whether there would ever be another Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame; and how every kitchen should have an aloe plant next to the stove. In the wee hours, their murmurs turned downright poetical, as they realized e’en now, that they were e’er the inveterate night owls and would ne’er be caught asleep ere the cock crowed. We shall leave them now to their non-verbal pursuits. Ciao, Art and Sue. Adieu and bon nuit.

August 2018, Octoober, 2021

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