I contribute to a collaborative blog called fifteensquared (under the name mhl) where each day people explain the clues for the Guardian, Observer, Independent, and Financial Times crosswords, as well as a number of more difficult and specialized crosswords. This is a great way to improve at cryptic crosswords – each day you have your best go at the puzzle and then can find out from the blog what you were missing and why. One interesting aspect of this is that the posts on certain crosswords generate far more comments than others. The Guardian week-day crosswords have substantially more comments than any other category, so all of these examples are from these posts. I wouldn’t take this measure of “controversy” all that seriously, since I’m not compensating for the overall variation of the number of comments: there used to be very few comments on any day, and there have been various periods where off-topic chatter has been more strongly discouraged. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to do a post on what it was that made these crosswords particularly “controversial”. I’ve started with those that got 53 or more responses, which is an arbitrary threshold designed to include the memorable Auster crossword that had the answer “HUMP THE BLUEY” :)
Of course, the crosswords that people like most tend not to get nearly so many comments as those where there’s ambiguity in interpretation, or disagreements over the fairness – it would be nice if the site had a simple mechanism for rating crosswords so that it would be easy to pick out the really great ones.
It has been fun to read through these posts again, and be reminded that while it can be tiresome to read lots of complaints about a particular crossword, there are plenty of commenters on fifteensquared who consistently add lots of interest and fun to doing the puzzles that I would otherwise miss.
Guardian 24544 / Auster
I still think that this crossword had an over-the-top reaction, which was largely because of two clues:
- “What Aussie swagmen do to obey Jesus’ instruction? (John 5:8) (4,3,5)” => HUMP THE BLUEY. To quote from my post, this is a ‘[d]ouble definition, the first of which is rather difficult: Chambers defines “hump the bluey” as “(Aust) to travel on foot, carrying a bundle of possessions”, and Jesus’s instruction in John 5:8 is “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (King James Version)’
- “Place where night finally gives way to day in a line between the poles (7)” => EQUADOR. It seems that this was an error, since it was later changed in the online version to “Place where Queen is replaced by Charlie and night finally gives way to day in a line between the poles (7)” => ECUADOR.
Otherwise the puzzle was rather easy, with a very high number of anagrams. The more I think about the former clue, the more it makes me smile, so even though I couldn’t solve it unaided I’m glad it was in the crossword.
Guardian 24,621 / Araucaria
This puzzle, which the majority seemed to enjoy, had a theme of two bicentenaries: the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. It’s unusual in this list because there were very few criticisms of the puzzle, but still many comments. (Quite a lot of the comments were rather off-topic, but not in a way that I thought was inappropriate.)
Guardian 24643 / Gordius
This crossword had a couple of mini-themes relating to euphemisms and a scattering of biblical clues. The most discussed clues in this one were:
- “7 for what Saul did in Engedi (8,3,4)”, where the answer to 7 is EUPHEMISM => COVERING ONES FEET. A very difficult clue, where the answer is an obscure euphemism for defecating taken from the story of Saul relieving himself in 1 Samuel 24 verse 3 – the Hebrew is literally “covered his feet”.
- “Gent’s son, perhaps is (7)” => BELGIAN. A very tough cryptic definition, where you need to know that “Gent” is the native spelling of Ghent, and the “[blah]’s son” or “son of [blah]” expression to mean “someone from [blah]”
- The clue for 15 across was missing in some versions.
- “Aramaic skull by barbarian in gaolbreak” => GOLGOTHA. There’s some discussion of which languages Golgotha means “place of the skull” in, and “gaolbreak” for (GAOL)* is, as you would expect, regarded by some as unfair.
- There were a number of answers with difficult vocabulary, in particular DIABASE, LARBOARD and ANIMADVERT.
I defended a few of these in the comments at the time, but in retrospect I think this was too tough for a daily puzzle – it probably justified the number of comments.
Guardian 24,801 / Rover
This was considered easy by most, but with many clues that people felt were either unsound or unsatisfactory in some way, e.g.:
- “Man from Naples is rescued from a riot (5)” => MARIO. (Unless “from” is doing double duty, there’s no indication that this is a hidden answer – even if it’s just “‘s” or “of” there needs to be something extra there…)
Other complaints were of clues that weren’t cryptic enough or double definitions where both parts were very similar.
Guardian 24,766 / Araucaria
The large number of comments here were mostly genuine discussions of how to parse the clues, e.g. in what sense “of the French” can be DE, or whether ALBAT sounds the same as “Albert”. This was just a difficult puzzle for a weekday, I think, and some typically Araucarian touches in the cluing.
Guardian 24,638 / Chifonie
A quite do-able crossword, and most of the discussion is taken up on with the question of whether particular abbreviations are reasonable, in particular:
- whether “relation” to give PI should be allowed
- the (rarely seen) T for “Troy”, referring to an abbreviation for the unit of weight sometimes used for precious metals
The former question comes up quite frequently, and unfortunately tends to provoke tedious discussion. In the online archive it’s only been used by Chifonie, as far as I can tell.
Guardian 24,872 / Araucaria
This puzzle was very well received by the regular contributors for its humour and a couple of entertaining liberties. The controversy here was generated by a comment from don which rewrote negative comments from the previous day’s blog post to apply to this puzzle, to make the point, as I understand it, that reactions to puzzles are strongly biased by the name of the setter.
Guardian 24,620 / Chifonie
The comments consist largely of off-topic banter (e.g. about Paul’s clue competition), except for these issues:
- “Archbishop hit little girl (7)” => LAMBETH: it turns out that LAMBETH being synonymous with “the Archbishop of Canterbury” is supported by Collins and the OED.
- The clue “Ring student beset by siren (5)” => CIRCE provoked comments that Circe was not a Siren, but it was later argued that she was still a siren in the less specific sense :)
Guardian 24,777 / Araucaria
A puzzle with a mini-theme of literature, which generated a bit of generic outrage. I think that two of the clues which upset people were genuinely sub-standard, though:
- “Poem cut and edited to be on standby (4)” => IDLY, which is IDYL[l] then “edited” to rearrange L and Y. As well as that rather indirect construction, I don’t think one can substitute IDLY for “standby”, “on standby” or “to be on standby” in a sentence.
- “Cheat to ask for oil over the water, say (7)” => BEGUILE. The most convincing two options were BEG = “ask” + UILE = sounds like the French for oil (“huile”) or an Irish pronunciation of “oil”. In either case “over the water … say” would indicate a non-mainland homophone.
Guardian 24,734 / Enigmatist
The controversy here mostly arose from some of the answers and constructions being very hard. e.g. it contained the words COLOSTRUM, RELIEVO, MONOPHTHONG, EREMITE and ELEMI and a several more that are less than obvious. On the other hand, many of the clues had Enigmatist’s characteristic humorous touches – I remember laughing at several of them. The constructions that provoked the most discussion were:
- “River spot in which I’ll get lost, say. No circumnavigating Backs (7)” => YANGTZE. C. G. Rishikesh explains this as EG = “say” + NAY = “no” around (“circumnavigating”) Z[i]T = “spot in which I’ll get lost”, with “Backs” indicating reversal of everything.
- “Man by joiner in a whirl? The reverse (9)” => ALEXANDER, which IanN14 explains as A + REEL = “whirl” reversed around X = “by” + AND = “joiner”.
Unfortunately the end of the discussion degenerated into some bad-tempered back-and-forth, tangentially related to the frequently seen “cattle” meaning of “neat”.
Guardian 24591 / Logodaedalus
Everyone seemed to find this pretty easy, and it was uncontroversial apart from the odd instance of an adjectival phrase defining a noun and the use of a number of words in the clue directly in the answer. The mostly off-topic comments include some discussion of whether accents should matter in crosswords, how strict cluing should be, and regrettably some trolling.
Guardian 24,567 / Araucaria
A very tricky crossword themed around a quotation from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s tribute to John Milton, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of Milton’s birth. Of the many clues that caused problems, there were:
- “Parrot on top of one of the Roses? (4)” => LORY. “Lancaster OR York” were the Roses in the War of the Roses.
- “Ross’s leader following his follower, mostly one that suffers (6)” => MARTYR. Ross’s follower is Cromarty (as in Ross and Cromarty), so “mostly” might give you [cro]MARTY followed by Ross’s leader (R).
- “Forties cry that’s on the up when winning first gold (6)” => EXCELS. I think the definition, somewhat bizarrely, is a homophone for XLs (“Forties” in Roman numerals). Geoff Moss explained that the subsidiary is that EXCELSIOR = “on the up” can be obtained by adding I = “first” + OR = “gold”.
- ‘Shocking omission of “the plural of mou_e (7)”‘ => SEISMIC. A nice clue, I thought – if you insert SEISMIC into “the plural of mou_e” you get “the plural of mouSE IS MICe”, the definition being “shocking”.
- “Bird on pole, no friend to our friend (5)” => CROWN. CROW = “bird” + N = “pole”. The definition refers to Milton’s opposition to the monarchy.
Some difficult answers as well (MONDAY CLUB, INANITION for me) made this all round a serious puzzle, and justified the large number of comments on it. I remember really liking Geoff Moss’s comment about how to consider a crossword after finishing it.
Guardian 24,603 / Araucaria
This puzzle was themed after capital cities, all of which were missing the definition part – 13 were hidden in the grid, all but one being 6 letters long. (The rubric gave quite a big hint, in fact: “Thirteen solutions are of a set, one of which is here translated into its own language. None of these is further defined.”) The most difficult clue for people seemed to be:
- “1 in 2 (4)” => WIEN. 2 was LONDON, London is sometimes known as “The Great WEN” and WIEN is the German for Vienna. (This was the solution “translated into its own language” referred to in the clue.) Undoubtedly a very difficult clue.
The large number of comments on this crossword were partly due to it starting the (rather frequent) debate on whether Araucaria deserves the high standing in which he is held. My feeling is that fifteensquared would be better off without these debates, since people’s preferences are so personal, but that would be rather hard to enforce. I think Eileen’s comment on this one sums up how I feel about difficult but fair crosswords. However, I think it’s clear from the irritation that people express when obscure words or constructions come up in the daily crosswords that lots of people do take it much more personally.
Guardian 24,615 / Rover
And the winner of the grand prize is Rover! The problematic clues in this crossword were:
- “It’s pretty to behold what Platonic friends discuss at leisure (4-2-8)” => LOVE-IN-IDLENESS. Love-in-Idleness is a flower, so “It’s pretty to behold” is the somewhat weak definition – LOVE is what friends discuss in Plato’s Symposium, and IN-IDLENESS is “at leisure”.
- ‘Translator of “The German Eating Fish” (7)’ => DECODER. People generally assumed this was a mistake (COD = “Fish” in DER = “The German”) but perhaps it was meant to be CODE = “Fish” (a cipher used in WWII) in DER = “The German”. However, that latter interpretation would need the clue to have “Fish, Say” or “Fish, Perhaps”.
- “Almost general tutorials (7)” => CLASSES. This should be read as “genera” (“Almost general”). In retrospect, I don’t think this should have caused so many problems.
Again, it’s worth noting that despite provoking lots of discussion and criticism, there aren’t that many really problematic clues, as Sil van den Hoek points out. If I were a setter for a national newspaper, I’m not sure I would cope well with reading these discussions, given how tough it is to write a single good and original clue.