Archive for Azed

Goodbye to Azed

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on November 3, 2013 by telescoper

Having a bit of a tidy up on the blog earlier today, I noticed today that it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything in the category marked “crosswords”.

The reason for this is that the responsibilities I acquired with my current position have made it quite difficult to find the time to indulge my passion for cruciverbalism if I’m also going to keep this blog going. In fact, I’ve recently made a decision to ditch a puzzle that has been a favourite for some time, Azed in the Observer.

Some time ago I stopped getting the Guardian on Saturday and switched to the Independent. That has been quite rewarding because I’ve taken to the Indy crossword and have won the prize a number of times. I’ve lost count how many, actually, but it’s probably about twenty. The prize on each occasion was a dictionary, the same dictionary, and I’ve given most of them away.

I persevered with the Observer, chiefly because of Azed, but I’m afraid the quality of the paper has deteriorated as quickly as its price has increased. I therefore decided, with some regret, to switch to the Independent on Sunday. I find this is a much more compact and better written newspaper with, as a friend of mine accurately summed it up, “much less shite in it” than the Observer.

The Independent on Sunday has a normal prize cryptic (similar to the Saturday one) in the paper and another one, Beelzebub, in the magazine, which is similar in style of both grid and clues to Azed, nicely done but perhaps a little less challenging. There isn’t a monthly clue-writing competition either; since I always struggled to find the time and inspiration to offer decent clues I think it’s just as well that I admit defeat and withdraw from that competition. Perhaps I’ll return to it when I’ve got more spare time, which is only likely to happen when I’m retired..

P.S. Incidentally you can find the circulation figures of UK newspapers here. The Observer and the Independent on Sunday have both fallen precipitously since ~ 2007.

Crossed Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on October 28, 2012 by telescoper

I’m still a bit fragile after a sudden bout of illness. Judging by my symptoms – and the fact that the worst of it seems to have passed in about 24 hours – I think it must have been this (i.e. the dreaded “Winter Vomiting Bug”). You’ll be relieved that I don’t intend to go into the details on here.

Anyway, being out of action all day yesterday has put me behind on a number of important things, including the weekend’s crosswords which also reminded me that it’s been a while since I posted anything in that particular file on here.  I did manage to get out to buy yesterday’s Independent, but haven’t started the puzzle yet. Incidentally, I should mention that I recently won the Independent Crossword Prize for the NINTH time. That means I’ve accumulated nine copies of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus in little over a year. I keep getting envious comments from people who’ve been entering this competition for years and have never won, but I seem to win it regularly every few weeks.  I have one copy of the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus at home, one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum and the rest I’ve distributed to colleagues at work. I’ve even started a waiting list, although I may move on from Cardiff before I can fulfil all the requests…

Anyway, I was cheered this morning when I discovered that I’d won a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in the Observer’s Azed Crossword Puzzle No. 2105. This puzzle was a “special” with the theme “Collisions”, introduced with the following rubric:

Down clues are normal. Each across entry consists of two answers which ‘collide’,  i.e. they overlap by one or more letters, the overlapping letters always appearing in  their correct order. Across clues consist of definitions of each of the full overlapping  answers and subsidiary indications of each minus the overlapping letters. Definition and subsidiary indication for one answer precede those for the other, but either  may come first. Numbers in brackets indicate the lengths of complete entries. One  across answer consists of two words. Competitors should submit with their entries  a clue in the style of the other acrosses to the unclued ‘collision’ at 1 Across, which  must be deduced.

I’m always very wary of unclued lights, but in this case it was quite easy to deduce TITANIC/ICEBERG was the combination that went with the overall theme as well as fitting with the other clues. I didn’t think that, for a “special”, the puzzle was all that difficult to solve but I did find it a mighty struggle to come up with a clue in which the join between the two separate parts was reasonably well disguised and which had a reasonable surface reading. My attempt was

Showing sex appeal in leather, very large bird knocked back cold fish

I’ll leave it to the reader to parse the clue and see how it fits with the instructions.

Anyway, with that I’m up to 10th place in the Annual Honours Table, but with only 3 out of 13 puzzles completed there’s plenty of time to fall back to my usual position!

Now, time to see if I can eat something without unwanted special effects….

Crosswords and Prizes

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on June 24, 2012 by telescoper

It has been a while since I last posted anything in the box marked Crosswords, so I thought I’d while away a bit of this dreary Sunday morning with a few thoughts on that topic.

Less than a year ago, I switched my Saturday newspaper from the Guardian to the Independent (see here for the reason). I’ve been doing the Independent Prize Cryptic every week since then, except when I’ve been away. I find it significantly more satisfying than the Guardian puzzle. I’m not sure the Independent‘s crossword is harder – although some of my friends think so –  but there seems to be better quality control there than at the Guardian.

I still occasionally do the Guardian puzzle at weekends by downloading it from the web. Yesterday’s celebrated a centenary – not difficult to guess whose! – but it wasn’t a particularly interesting puzzle, and I thought some of the clues were very clumsy.

Anyway, somewhat amazingly, I’ve actually won the Independent crossword prize no less than six times in the nine months or so since I starting doing it. An immediate inference from this is that there must be many fewer entrants than for the Guardian weekly puzzle, which I only won once every few years. The other side of this is that I’m accumulating dictionaries at an alarming rate. The prize for the Indy cryptic competition is The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a substantial tome that retails for about £20. I now have one in my study at home, one in the sitting room, and one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum a while ago, and the other two I’ve given to colleagues at work. I’ll probably be disposing of a few more copies like that if things carry on the way they have in past months. I’ve even started taking advance orders…

I haven’t been doing so well this year in my favourite crossword competition, the Azed puzzle in the Observer. I started well enough, but then drew a blank on a number of occasions and slipped back down the table. However, this week I got another score with a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in Azed 2087, and am currently in equal 24th place. There’s only one competition puzzle left, and I’m a long way off the pace set by the leaders, so I’m not going to finish much higher than that even if I do well in the last competition.

Anyway, my clue for the word ROCKET was:

Dicky ticker – love might make this one race!

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to parse, although it involves a “comp. anag.” It goes without saying that the prize-winning clues are much better than my effort!

Incidentally, I noticed yesterday that my post about the Azed 2000 lunch a couple of years ago was getting a bit of traffic. I don’t really know why, but in the course of looking around I saw that there’s a nice collection of photographs of the event here. I couldn’t embed any of them here as they’re protected.

The general reaction of people I work with to all this cruciverbalism is that it’s a waste of time. I actually don’t agree, except insofar as everything is a waste of time when you think about it. Crosswords for me are a form of mental jogging. They exercise a brain in a way that’s different from the usual things it is faced with. In my case, a lot of my work involves puzzles of various kinds. Some are mathematical, connected with my research, but the most difficult ones are bureaucratical: trying to work out what all the paperwork is for and how to fill it in without losing my rag. Despite a complete lack of empirical evidence to support this assertion, I think doing crosswords keeps my brain from ossifying and enables it to think more flexibly. Or maybe I protest too much. Perhaps I just enjoy them.

Setters and Solvers

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by telescoper

I realise that yesterday I said I only had time for a quick post, and then proceeded to write >1000 words on the subject of Masters degrees. Today I really only have time for a quick post, as I have to finish writing my examination paper (amongst other things).

Anyway, I haven’t blogged about crosswords for a while so I just thought mention a few things. Some time ago I switched from the Guardian to the Independent on Saturdays. The Guardian is a sad case. As its circulation falls, the price continues to rise. It is now getting more expensive virtually by the week. It comes with stacks of tedious supplements which go straight into the recycling bin anyway. There’s much less of the Independent and it’s both higher quality and cheaper. There’s a lesson there for the Grauniad, I think.

More importantly (for me) the Guardian’s crosswords have gone rapidly downhill and I much prefer the Independent’s setters nowadays. I do occasionally do the Grauniad prize one by downloading it from the net, especially if it’s Araucaria, but most of the other setters are nowhere near as good. Since I started doing the Indy crossword last year I’ve won the prize, a rather splendid dictionary, three times. I’ve got one in my study at home and one in my office. The other I gave to my mum. If I win any more I’m not sure how I’ll dispose of them. Perhaps I could open a shop?

The magazine bit of the Independent has a more difficult crossword called Inquisitor. I’m not sure about these at all. Sometimes they’re really good, but too often they require so many modifications to be made to each solution before entry into the grid that they become completely tedious, and the completed puzzle just looks like a random jumble of letters. Call me old-fashioned, but I like my crosswords to have words in them. Last week’s (Inquisitor 1217) was an extreme example, with “thematic modifications” all over the place and some parts of the puzzle completely unclued. It turned out that you had to remove every third letter of each solution before entering it into the grid, the theme being an obscure and entirely unclued reference to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner “And he stoppeth one of three”. I got there in the end – I find I can’t leave a puzzle incomplete once I’ve started – but I didn’t post it off in protest at how unsatisfying it was.  I don’t mind difficult puzzles, but they have to be fair: leaving huge parts of the puzzle unclued means that it’s just guesswork rather than logic.

My favourite crossword is still Azed in the Observer. I got off to a good start in this year’s clue setting competition with a run of VHCs (“Very Highly Commended”). However, I didn’t have time to do the Christmas Azed and have therefore slipped down the league table a bit.

I got an HC in the last competition, No. 2070, in which the word to be clued was MISTREATMENT. My clue was

Kinky “Master” welcoming one into pain or wanting abuse

i.e. anagram of MASTER including I running into TORMENT with OR missing (wanting); abuse is the definition. It’s OK I suppose but admittedly not as good as the prize-winning entries.

This word is tailor-made for an &lit type of clue, which Azed seems to like. The winning entry for this one was of this type

Abuse T. Emin’s art met?

So you can read this as “abuse” (an anagram indicator) of the subsequent letters to make MISTREATMENT or the whole clue itself as a definition. Azed seems to allow a lot of slack in the definition part of such clues, but I’m not at all convinced that “T. Emin’s art” has ever been actually mistreated so I don’t like this as much as some of the other clues. It’s not my decision, however, and I have to say some of the clues in the list are really superb, much better than my mundane effort.

I love solving crossword puzzles, but I find setting the clues extremely difficult. I think I’m the same way with physics too. I like solving – or trying to solve – problems of various kinds, but I find setting them very hard work. That’s why it takes me so long to write examination papers, and why I consequently have to go into the office on a lovely spring sunday. It would be much easier to set exactly the same paper as last year, but of course no self-respecting university teacher would ever even dream of doing that….

Another Crossword Competition

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , on October 24, 2011 by telescoper

Flushed with success after winning a prize in the Saturday Independent crossword competition (even if it is yet another dictionary) and flying high at No. 6 in the Azed Annual Honours List I thought I’d have another go at setting a puzzle for my readers. There were some complaints that my last crossword was too difficult, so here is a slightly simpler one for you:

Across                                                       Down

1  Current symbol for ego?                    1  One visual organ, we hear


The VHC that wasn’t….

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on October 9, 2011 by telescoper

I was delighted to see, when I turned to the Azed Crossword in last week’s Observer, my name  among the list of those awarded a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) for Azed No. 2049. A VHC is a sort of consolation prize for clues judged by Azed to be not quite good enough to win one of the three main prizes. Although I enjoy solving the puzzles I know I’m not very good at setting my own clues. I therefore find the monthly competition exercises me considerably and am usually more than happy to get a VHC! Also, these score points in the annual league table in which I did pretty well last year, finishing in joint 15th place – my highest every position

However, my delight turned to frustration when I found out that my name and the clue I submitted (for the word PARTY-POOPER) did not appear on the corresponding Azed Slip, a monthly report on the entries for the competition crossword. I’ve therefore not been credited with a VHC in the league table to go with the one I got the previous month in Azed No. 2045. Worse still, I didn’t keep a copy of the clue I submitted and now, over a month later on, I can’t remember what it was. I imagine Azed throws away the original entries so he probably doesn’t have it either.

It may be that my name was put in the Observer list by accident and the Azed slip is actually correct. The other possibility is that Azed forwarded the correct list to the newspaper but inadvertently skipped my name when compiling the slip. I did try emailing about this, but haven’t had a reply so I suppose I’ll have to give up on it. It doesn’t matter very much in the great cosmic scheme of things, so I suppose I shouldn’t be bitter…

Crossing Words

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , on February 27, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted anything about crosswords, so the fact that I saw my name in today’s Observer gives me an excuse to do so now.

First, I was delighted to get another point for a Very Highly Commended (VHC) clue in the ongoing Azed clue-setting competition. The latest competition puzzle was Azed No. 2019. This was an interesting one, incorporating a variation on the “Plain” Azed puzzle in that the 12 by 12 square grid was actually divided vertically into two rectangular puzzles side-by-side. Clues for each half of the resulting “Right & Left” puzzle were run together, usually without punctuation, and with either side coming first. Solvers had to determine the location of the join between the clues, solve each part, and then figure out which side of the puzzle the answers had to go. I think it was a very enjoyable puzzle, with Azed’s skill strongly in evidence not only in constructing the clues but also in disguising the splices.

The two words for which clues were invited for the competition were OVERAWE and HENOTIC; the latter is a fairly unfamiliar term, defined in the puzzle as “tending to unify”. The clue that won me a VHC was

Cow or ewe cooked with odd bits of veal serving to make one nice hot stew?

Here I’m using “cow” as a definition of “OVERAWE”, with subsidiary anagram of OR+EWE+VA (odd bits of VEAL), with “cooked” as an anagram indicator; “serving to make one” defines HENOTIC, clued with another anagram NICE+HOT, with anagram indicator “stew”. I think it’s an easy clue, but I was quite pleased at the way the two halves run into each other to  produce a reasonable surface reading. Above all, I think it’s fair – no superfluous words and no dodgy syntax.

Anyway, I’ve now got 3 VHC mentions this year, which is as many as I’ve ever won in the annual competition,  so if I can just get one more it will be a personal best. There are 5 puzzles remaining this year, so maybe I’ll manage it!

A few weeks ago I won a prize in the Everyman crossword competition – also in the Observer. This is a much more straightforward puzzle than Azed and I usually do it more as a warm-up exercise than anything else but still post the completed grid off every week. One day last week I came home from work to find a note from DHL saying that they’d left a package with my next-door neighbour. It turned out to be a package of Penguin books: a Concise English Dictionary; a Concise Thesaurus; a Dictionary of Proverbs; a Dictionary of English Idioms; and the Penguin Book of Facts (a kind of encyclopedia). Anyone who’s been to my house knows that I have no shortage of dictionaries already, but I’m pleased with the others.

I finished this week’s Everyman just before starting to write this post. For the second week running there’s a clue formed by an indirect anagram. In this instance it is:

End of game inventor reviewed (2-4)

The answer is NO-SIDE (the signal indicating the end of a rugby match). The subsidiary indication is an anagram of EDISON (“inventor”). This is called an indirect anagram because the letters to be formed into the anagram do not actually appear in the clue. Most British setters frown upon this type of clue, not because they are hard – the one above certainly isn’t difficult to solve – but because they aren’t Ximenean and are therefore unfair.  Azed would certainly never countenance such a clue, though an increasing number of setters – especially those for the Grauniad – seem to adopt a much more libertarian approach.


Azed 2000

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by telescoper

I was up bright and early yesterday in order to get the train to Oxford where a lunch was held in honour of Jonathan Crowther, who, under the pseudonym Azed, has been setting cryptic crosswords in the Observer for the best part of 40 years. Today (Sunday 26th September 2010) sees the publication of the 2000th Azed puzzle, hence yesterday’s celebration. There’s also a special piece in the Observer today to mark the occasion. One of the authors of that piece, Colin Dexter of Inspector Morse fame (who has won the Azed competition more times than anyone), was at the lunch yesterday; he has a celebration of his own coming up, as he will be 80 years old next week.

I’ve blogged about my enjoyment of Azed‘s puzzles before and was particularly looking forward to the possibility of meeting the man himself and also being able to put faces to the names that often appear (mostly above mine) in the Azed Honours table.

I got quite an early train from Cardiff in order to give myself time to browse a few bookshops in Oxford before the lunch got under way with drinks at noon in Wadham College. There then followed a musical tribute to Azed in various parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan (I am the very model of a modern cruciverbalist, etc…) and others (Azed, Azed, give me your answer do….). Mingling with the other guests I got the chance to chat to some proper professional crossword setters. I’ve never actually tried to set an entire cryptic crossword puzzle but I think I’ll probably give it a go one day, just for fun. Based on what I heard, setting crosswords, even for the national broadsheets, is not something that one can easily make a living doing.  Aside from the professional setters – who seem to dominate the Azed prize list, not surprisingly – there were lots of ordinary folk who just enjoy doing the puzzles.

The lunch was quite splendid (scallops to start, followed by duck) and  lashings of nice wine. Afterwards there were various speeches and presentations, and the results of the last competition (No. 1997) were handed out. I got an “HC” for my clue to the word FADO:

It’s a transitory thing, love, for Portuguese folk (4)

(FAD+O); but once again the winning clues were much better than mine! Officially, HC stands for Highly Commended, but I always interpret it as Hard Cheese.

The guest speaker was Richard Stilgoe (remember him?) who gave a very droll and at the same time very interesting speech that included several things I hadn’t realised before. One is that TWELVE+ONE is an anagram of “ELEVEN+TWO”, perhaps the only example of an anagram that works with characters as well as numbers, i.e. 12+1=11+2. The other, more important, thing he mentioned that struck me was about Apple computers. As you all probably know I’m not a particular fan of Macs and the like, which together with my more general Luddite inclinations, probably explains why I didn’t know the origin of the Apple logo (an apple with a bite taken out from it) .

For those of you who don’t know, the reason why the Apple has a bite taken from it is a reference to Alan Turing, the British mathematician who did more than anyone else to pave the way towards the age of electronic computers through his work on cracking German wartime codes. Turing was gay, but  lived in a time when male homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence. When his sexuality led to a criminal conviction, the courts, instead of sending him to prison, decided to subject him to a barbaric medical “treatment” tantamount to chemical castration. The effect of unbalancing his hormones was to make him so depressed that he decided to take his own life. He knew that cyanide was a quick and effective way of doing this, but also knew that it tasted foul. He therefore made a solution of cyanide and injected it into an apple which he then ate. The bite out of the Apple logo is there as a mark of respect for Alan Turing.

That story is probably old hat to most of you, but I have to admit that hearing it for the first time has rather changed my view of Steve Jobs!

Anyway, after lunch we had the chance to mingle in the pleasant grounds of Wadham College, but I couldn’t stay too long as I had a train to catch. Although I was more than a little tipsy, I managed to get the train I had planned and made it back to Cardiff in time to cater for Columbo‘s insulin needs. On the way back I had a go at the tricky Araucaria puzzle in Saturday’s Guardian, which was of the alphabetical type I enjoy best. I’m glad to say I got it finished in order to clear the decks for today’s Azed 2000 puzzle. I haven’t started it yet, but at first glance it looks like a corker!


Dingbats, surface readings, and literally what it says

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , , , , on August 22, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted anything in the box marked crosswords, so I thought I’d remedy that today.

As I’ve explained before, I’m a regular entrant in the monthly Azed competition in the Observer. There’s actually an Azed cryptic crossword every week, but every four weeks there’s a special one  in which contestants have not only to complete the (usually quite tricky) puzzle, but also to supply a clue for a word for which only a definition was given. There are prizes for the best clues each time, as judged by Azed himself, and a league table is built up over the year.

I don’t mind admitting that I much prefer solving the puzzles to setting clues of my own. Perhaps that’s consistent with the fact that I don’t enjoy setting examination questions much! However, I do enter the clue-writing competition every time it comes up. I’ve never won it, but I’ve had several VHC (Very Highly Commended) which count in the honours table. I’ve gradually improved my ranking year on year, and perhaps one day I’ll actually win the  coveted Azed bookplate. However, I’ve got a long way to go before I can produce clues of the ingenuity and subtlety of the regular winners.

Last year, I started brightly and was for a long time neck-and-neck with the novelist Colin Dexter in the league table. However, over the last few months my clues didn’t find favour with Mr Azed while his were much better. He finished in 8th place, while I languished in joint 40th; the complete table is here.

My best clue last year (I think) was in Azed 1967 for the word SUBORDINATELY:

In the manner of an inferior sandwich, prepared ‘to a New York deli recipe’ (13)

It’s a fairly straightforward one, as these things go, consisting of two parts, a definition and a cryptic allusion to the word being clued.  “In the manner of an inferior..” is the definition, meaning “subordinately”. The cryptic allusion in this case is the word “SUB” (meaning an American-style sandwich) followed by an anagram of the collection of letters indicated by what’s inside the quotes, i.e. to+a+NY+deli+r, the NY and r being standard abbreviations. “Prepared” is an anagram indicator.

The clue also has a nice surface reading, I think, which is an aspect many setters don’t seem to bother with. The surface reading is just how the clue reads when you don’t try to interpret it as a cryptic clue. I much prefer clues that read like something that  as could be written or said in a different context to a crossword, as well as making grammatical and syntactical sense.

The winning clue for this word was by D.F. Manley, who is one of the setters for the Times, with an &lit clue:

As in ‘B-role’ duty possibly (13)

This type of clue is regarded by many setters as the cleverest kind, but I have to admit that I have a love-hate relationship with them. Here the definition and cryptic allusions are supplied not by two different parts of the clue, but by two different readings of the whole thing. The cryptic allusion in this case is an anagram indicated by the word “possibly”, i.e. SUBORDINATELY is an anagram of AS IN B ROLE DUTY. The definition is “&lit”, i.e. “and literally what it says”. This is where I think setters push the boundaries a bit too far. I don’t think “As in B-role duty possibly” is really a very fair definition of SUBORDINATELY, and this clue has a very clumsy surface reading too. It’s undoubtedly clever, but I don’t like it as much as some of the others. In general I think these kind of clues are more appreciated by setters, who know how hard they are to concoct, than by solvers.

Anyway, today saw the announcement of the results of the first round of the current Azed competition, and I got another VHC for the slightly obscure word FOULARD (a kind of scarf or handkerchief). My clue was

A square covering La Dame’s head? (7)

This is an “&lit” too, but the cryptic allusion isn’t an anagram. FOUR is a perfect square so “A square covering La” is FOU(LA)R, and Dame’s Head is D (first letter of “Dame”), hence FOULARD. The whole clue also serves as a fair definition, I think, because a “square” can be a scarf (the wikipedia example of a foulard shows the typical way of wearing it, around the head); it also suggests a French word. Anyway, I’m off quickly out of the blocks again with a VHC, and am currently in 4th place in the table! That might be the highest I’ve ever been. I doubt it will last, though.

I also do the Guardian Prize crossword puzzle every week, which has many potential setters some of whom seem to bend the rules beyond breaking point. Last week’s Guardian competition puzzle (No. 25089) by Paul contained a number of clues that I didn’t like at all. They weren’t particularly difficult but had neither a  fair definition nor a good surface reading. Take, for example,

Dr Castier? (5,2,3,5)


M – give it ten? (5,2,5)

The question marks are a conventional way of indicating that something funny is going on, but they’re not sufficient to give   fair indications of the solutions in this case. These are, in fact, reverse clues of a form sometimes known as a dingbat or a rebus. The first one gives THROW IN THE TOWEL, which is clued thus: DR(CAST)IER,  with DRIER defining TOWEL and CAST defining THROW. In similar vein the second one is HAND IN GLOVE, via M(GIVE)ITTEN, with GIVE=HAND and MITTEN=GLOVE. Clever, but neither clue has any definition whatsoever of the answer phrase nor any surface reading other than gibberish. I might have forgiven Dr Castier? were it a familiar name from history or literature, but it isn’t. It was just made up for this puzzle. A very poor show, in my view. Anyone can make a clue by flinging random letters together.

There were several other clues of this type in the puzzle, so once you have one of them the others are quite easy.  However, in my opinion, they’re all pretty dismal clues on their own. I only ever buy the Guardian these days on Saturdays, largely for the weekend Prize crossword. If they carry on using puzzles as feeble as that one I’ll ditch it altogther. However, this week we were back to good old Araucaria, which restored my faith. My favourite  clue was

The wrong way to be (4)

The solution is left as an exercise.


Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on February 12, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about my passion for crosswords, but this Sunday’s Azed puzzle in the Observer was one of my favourite kind so I thought I’d mention it briefly here.

Azed is the pseudonym used by Jonathan Crowther who has been setting the Observer crossword since 1972; this week’s was number 1967. His  puzzles are usually standard cryptic crosswords which, though quite difficult as such things go, are nevertheless set in a fairly straightforward style. Every now and again, however,  he puts together a different type of puzzle that makes a different set of demands on the solver.  To be honest, I don’t always like these “funny” ones as they sometimes seem to me to be contrived and inelegant, but this last one was a type I really like as it combines the normal cryptic crossword style with another interest of mine, which is  codes and codebreaking.

The interesting aspect of this particular puzzle, which is laid out on a normal crossword grid, is that it involves a type of code called a Playfair cipher. In fact, this particular scheme was invented by the scientist Charles Wheatstone whom most physicists will have heard of through “Wheatstone Bridge“. It was, however, subsequently popularized by Lord Playfair, whose name stuck rather than its inventor’s.

The Playfair scheme is built around the choice of a code word, which must have the special property that no letter occurs twice within it.  Other than that, and the fact that the more letters in the codeword the better the code, there aren’t any real constraints on the choice. The particular example used by Azed to illustrate how it works is ORANGESTICK.

The codeword is used to construct a Playfair square which is a 5×5 arrangement of letters involving the codeword first and then afterwards the rest of the alphabet not used in the codeword,  in alphabetical order. Obviously, there are 26 letters altogether and the square only holds 25 characters,  so we need to ditch one: the usual choice is to make I stand for both I and J, doing double duty, which rarely causes ambiguity in the deciphering process. The Playfair square formed from ORANGESTICK is thus

This square is then used as the basis of a literal digraph substitution cipher, as follows. To encode a word it must first be split into pairs of letters e.g. CR IT IC AL. Each pair is then seen as forming the diagonally opposite corners of a rectangle within the word square, the other two corner letters being the encoded form. Thus, in the example shown, CR gives SG (not GS, which RC would give).

Where a pair of letters appears in the same row or column in the word square, its encoded form is produced from the letters immediately to the right of or below each respectively. For the last letters in a row or column the first letters in the same row or column become the encoded forms. Thus IC is encoded as CE. When all the pairs are encoded, the word is joined up again, thus CRITICAL is encoded as SGCICEOP.

The advantage of this over simpler methods of encipherment is that a given letter in the plain text is not always rendered as the same letter in the encrypted form: that depends on what other letter is next to it in the digraph.

Obviously, to decipher encrypted text into plain one simply inverts the process.

Now, what does this have to do with a crossword? Well, in a Playfair puzzle like the one I’m talking about a certain number of answers – in this case four – have to be encrypted before they will fit in the diagram. These “special” clues, however, are to the unencrypted form of the answer words. The codeword is not given, but must be deduced. We are, however, told that the answers to these special clues and the codeword are “semantically linked”.

What one has to do, therefore, is to solve the clues for the unencrypted words, then solve all the other clues that intersect with them on the grid. Given a sufficient number of digraphs in both plain text and encrypted form one can infer the codeword and hence encrypt the remaining (unchecked) letters for the special answers.

It probably sounds very convoluted, but in this puzzle it isn’t so bad because the four special clues weren’t so difficult. These are the following “across” clues:

1.  Footman having to plough yard (6)

which gives “FLUNKY” – “plough” in university slang, meaning “fail” or “flunk” + y (standard abbreviation for yard).

18. Wallaby No. 2 in penalty infringement, right? (8)

has to be “OFFSIDER”, Australian slang for a deputy and hence Wallaby No. 2,  with the cryptic allusion “OFFSIDE” for “penalty infringement” and R for “right”.

19. Staff inadequately blunder – many will conceal this (8)

this is the easiest – straightforward hidden word “UNDERMAN”, meaning “staff inadequately”.

32. Younger mussels one goes for in jar (6)

I think this is the best of this quartet of clues. The answer is “JUNIOR”, with “UNIO” (the genus of mussels) replacing the “a” (i.e. one) in JAR.

This set of answers clearly suggests the common theme that links them to the codeword. Moreover, the geometry of the grid along with the answers to the rest of the clues gives us ten digraphs in plain and encrypted form.

What has to be done then is to try to work out the Playfair square from the letter pairs, work out the codeword and then complete the unchecked letters in the specials in their encrypted form. It isn’t actually all that difficult to find the codeword in this example, by a mixture of induction and deduction. It turns out to be “SUBORDINATELY”, a fine candidate for a Playfair codeword as it is thirteen letters long and doesn’t feature any letter twice.

To enter the monthly Azed competition, however, one generally has to supply a clue as well as solving the puzzle. I’m really not very good at this aspect of crosswords- I much prefer solving the puzzles to setting ones of my own – which is why I’m quite a long way down the annual Azed Honours Table, in 29th place as of this month.

In the “Plain” competition puzzles, one has to supply a clue to replace one which is given as a straight definition.  In this case a clue was requested to the codeword, but I think  I’ll keep my attempt at  “SUBORDINATELY” to myself unless and until I win at least an honourable mention!



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