Olla podrida

This is an experimental message for the benefit of people with questions that don’t fit elsewhere, or about old postings that you don’t expect people to still be reading (specially folks doing syndicated versions of the Times, two or more weeks behind…). You can ask anything here. If it’s popular, I’ll put up one of these postings every Friday.

Snippet of useful stuff: I’ve added links to online versions of the three UK dictionaries that are most useful for Times crossword purposes. In each case, although you get far more than what you pay for, you’re not looking at the dictionary that’s really important:

Oxford: the Concise Oxford is one size bigger than the Compact, the edition searched on the ‘ask Oxford’ site (despite what any search result URLs might suggest).

: the version you get for free is understandably a subset of the full version of Collins.

: their “21st Century Dictionary” is not the one that used to be called “Chambers 20th Century Dictionary” (now “The Chambers Dictionary”), and is traditionally the favourite dictionary of British crossword setters and solvers, but not actually that suitable for daily paper puzzles and therefore NOT an official source for the Times puzzle. Any word in the current Concise Oxford or Collins is fair game as a grid entry in the Times puzzle. Taghairm, kilfud-yoking and all the others are not. (Before you ask: Highland divination/inspiration, esp. in a bullock’s hide underneath a waterfall; a fireside disputation.)

28 comments on “Olla podrida”

  1. Someone played GUANXI in a game of scrabble the other month and my jaw dropped. Only found in one dictionary, an OED, so far and already i have forgotten what it means (a chinese etiguette thing?. I am waiting for it to appear in a crossword.
  2. Good idea. I’m sure I have a few questions. For now:

    Is there any real difference between the editing of the Times and the Times Jumbo? Obviously the max-one-hidden-word rule and similar can’t apply, but is there a slightly different stance, or is it intended to be more of the same, really?

    1. More of the same as far as I’m aware. I suspect there are similar rules with different numbers.
  3. Chambers word wizard (at
    ) seems to use The Chambers Dictionary and although it doesn’t give the definition it will at least tell you that, despite looking unlikely, Taghairm is actually a word.

    And guanxi is actually quite a common word in Chinese since meiguanxi is the equivalent of “no problem” or “never mind” when someone makes a minor apology (“I’m going to be 5 minutes late”).

  4. For ordinary words and proper nouns get the Oxford Dictionary of English, much better value than Collins.
    PS As an ex-OUP employee I have no vested interest in saying this. Collins and OUP have swapped posaitions in my pecking order these past few years. Don Manley
    1. I’m put off Oxford dictionaries by the number of everyday words that are regularly disallowed on Countdown because they do not appear in whichever version it is that Susie Dent refers to. There seems to be a policy that whenever a new word goes in another has to come out, so words with declining usage are “culled” so to speak. As an ex-OUP employee I’d be interested in your comments on this.
  5. I was not a lexicographer, but I believe that some culling does take place in everyday dictionaries( sometimes of rarely used derivatives, I believe, but don’t quote me). However, in terms of everyday words and proper nouns the ODE is outstandingly good. A professional setter should have Collins, ODE and Chambers all to hand, but maybe (s)he won’t keep an updated version of Collins. Where culling does become a nuisance is in the ODQ, because entries can be dropped for the sake of more modern ones but then get reintroduced fro later editions. This really is a nuisance for all concerned, but there again the ODQ is teh definitive quotations dictionary and (apart from the aforementioned itrritant) it’s pretty good. DFM
    1. I can only offer you:

      * tackling a couple of puzzles a day – add the Indie or Guardian to the Times puzzle
      * doing some of the barred-grid puzzles to cover tricky vocabulary and be ready for some of the tougher wordplay – attempting them without the dictionary for at least some of the solve if possible
      * start young (i.e. make regular attempts at cryptics before age 20) – it’s an old pet theory of mine, but the more I learn about other quick solvers the more convinced I am that this is the thing that really makes the difference
      * be prepared for a long apprenticeship – I had a decade or so as an unremarkable solver before getting really quick. That was before blogs

      1. I have been doing the Times on and off for thirty years since I was twenty. The point for me is not necessarily to be that fast – the joy in my day is setting aside an uninterrupted hour with a cup of tea or coffee a couple of cigars and the Times crossword. If I knocked it off in fifteen minutes more often than not I would somehow feel cheated, but, I admit, this could be a self-justifying thing. I find the difficult clues sometimes easier than the less difficult (as far as I can tell from the blog) because although I have a less than perfect grasp of the rules of wordplay, I am possessed of obscure (useless) knowledge and a good vocabulary, and I find that a simple guess at the definition without bothering with convoluted wordplay, can reap rewards. I also find that looking for word endings rather than beginnings can help.

        However, since I discovered this blog, I have been fascinated to understand the science of the thing, the ‘no living people other than the Queen’ rule for instance, and to go through the explanations of the answers has, I reckon, halved my time and filled me with a new enthusiasm for crosswords. I have started to time myself (which I have never done before, with any accuracy at least) and three weeks ago I attempted my first barred grid crossword (Mephisto) and did okay with it.
        So…I want to say thank you Peter for the excellent blog, it is a wonderful resource, the bloggers are very thorough with a fascinating depth of analysis, and contributions are, by and large, amusing, thought provoking and intelligent.
        Thank you

        1. Glad to be of service. As you improve at the barred-grid ones, your blocked-grid times should come down enough to get two done over the drink & cigars, or one plus some chipping away at the Listener or similar.

          Given plenty of practical experience, understanding the wordplay better is fairly straightforward. The useless knowledge and big vocabulary take much longer to gather, so they make a bigger difference – and keep older solvers competitive when pure speed of though should favour the young.

  6. Peter mentioned a couple of years ago that, if you are a member of an English library, you can get free online access to the Oxford English Dictionary and other Oxford reference books.
    The site that he links to says that access is available until 31 March 2008. I still have access at the moment – and make use of the resources a good few times a week – perhaps the deal has been extended.

    My most-used dictionary is the Collins English Dictionary (1994 edition). I recently looked at getting a newer version, but I am not impressed with what I’ve seen. All the encyclopaedic and biographical entries seem to have been removed. I hope my current edition holds together for a long time – so I can find quick info on Honegger, Fischer Von Erlach, Kruger National Park, etc…
    I have only found one error in this edition – an incorrect probability density function was given in the entry for ‘normal distribution’ – but I wrote to them and it has been corrected in subsequent editions!

    1. The dropping of the biographical entries is a good reason not to pay good money for the current Collins. My understanding is that the Oxford dictionary recommended by Don does have such entries.
  7. My old Collins recently fell to pieces so I bought a new one. The omission of biographical entries doesn’t bother me at all. It was always hit or miss as to what would or would not be included. It’s easier to know that one has to look elsewhere for such information and that meanwhile one has a first rate dictionary to refer to.
  8. Obscure words and references to obscure knowledge can obviously cause trouble. But so can spellings that are hard to guess from checking letters – C??S?R for CAESAR and ?E?G?E for LEAGUE are two that have given me trouble. Never mind the notorious WITENAGEMOT anag. with W?T?N?G?M?T and memories of {witan = council}, leading me to WITANEGEMOT as a dud spelling – and to the conclusion that sometimes if you don’t know the exact word you’re just never going to work it out.

    Appealing but wrong possibilities can be a big problem too. That’s why short answers can be so troublesome – a cryptic or double def for a ?A?E word, for example. Or, remembering my trouble in last year’s final, an alternative that fits def and some of the wordplay – my APHASIA that should have been APHONIA. I could say that I should have checked the full wordplay for every answer. That would have saved me a few minutes of barking up a wrong tree on this answer, but it’s not clear that checking full wordplay for all the other answers I put in on partial understanding would have been possible in the few minutes gained. Ten seconds slower overall and someone else would have won the cup!

    If you can’t do a clue, then yes you should leave it until you have some checking letters, but that barely counts as advice!

    When a clue uses knowledge you don’t have, you have to be canny about exploiting the knowledge you do have – making sure the wordplay fits, for example when you don’t understand the def.

    I don’t know either of the eliminator clues you offer.
    Ideas that I might jot down next to the clues, in the same order:

    * something about clubs or bags
    * caddie = verb?
    * why ‘casual’

    * spelling = enchantment/magic?
    * anag of (the last S)?

    The best practical advice I can offer is to read what bloggers and commenters say about the clues they solved last and what stroke of inspiration got them over the hurdle.

  9. Can we have a reminder of the backdoor methods to get at the crosswords, such as on a day like today, when I really needed a jumbo to do discreetly in meetings.
    1. Here’s the address you need. Copy and paste it into your preferred browser.


      Change the &day= &month= &year= to suit.

      The tricky bit is the “type=” at the end. enter:

      1 for daily cryptic
      2 for daily concise
      3 for Saturday cryptic
      4 for Saturday jumbo
      11 for Sunday Times cryptic

      There are more settings and one day I will compile a full list

      1. Sorry, forgot to mention. If you want the interactive, type the answers on screen version, replace the “printonly” bit of the address with “display”

      2. If you provide the crosswordID, it’s used instead of the date. In most cases it’s the crossword number. But of course you still need to remember whether it’s a Saturday puzzle for cryptics, or a Bank Holiday one for Jumbos.

        Listeners and Mephistos are not in the same archive. For recent ones, the best bet is just a search like {listener 3979} or {mephisto 2467} in the search box near the top right of any Times Online page in the green’n’black livery.

        These are the other numbers for which I’ve done successful searches. There are some other categories listed on the search drop-down but I think they’re empty.

        21 Club Monthly Special
        36 Bank Holiday Jumbo
        38 Times 2 Jumbo
        39 TLS
        40 Sport
        42 Sunday Times Jumbo
        45 Times 2 BH JUmbo
        46 Driving

        Edited at 2008-04-27 06:14 am (UTC)

        1. Thanks to both of you – it came back up when I crawled in around 1 this morning, so printers away, but by Sunday morning, if I’ve missed the Saturday Times and jumbo already, I feel like I’m way behind. Good thing I have a particularly dull concert to go to this afternoon and if I sit on the edge of the row, there’s just enough light to discreetly puzzle.
  10. I was interested to discover another gem of information here, regarding online resources. I discover that via my library (Kent) I have online access to the OED, DNB, Britannica, Credo, Oxford Reference and other sources too… remarkable. Why on earth have they never seen fit to mention this to me?? Or perhaps they did and I didn’t notice.

    I count this group (and RTC3) among my more valuable online resources. Thank you, Peter and other contributors.

    1. This will probably get buried within the thread, but morewords has a nice thing for those pesky “one letter removal” words in the Listener, it will list all the words that can be made from the letters within the word. It was useful in that target-shaped Valentine’s Day Listener puzzle
  11. I’m no great shakes at solving so it might appear presumptious of me to contribute to this thread. But one thing I rely on, perhaps faute de mieux, is staring at letters to work out possible or typical ‘word-shapes’ particularly endings. For instance I believe it is a fact that I-G at the end of a word has to be ING. Similarly G-T somewhere in a word will make me think of possible GHT words like LIGHT, MIGHT etc. A lot of anagram possibilites get excluded when checking letters go in. Similarly exotic letters in a clue like X or Z or V encourage me to try and solve them first because there are not as many words with those letters in. Another thing I do is work with ‘possible starters’. For instance an across clue might begin something like ‘Iron fist made dum de dum’. I can’t work it out but there is a strong chance that it begins FE. So if the possible F also starts a down clue I whiz to that and see if something springs to mind for that down clue beginning with F.

    Maybe these ideas are so basic that for experienced solvers they have become second-nature.

    On another point Peter the Times Saturday crossword doesn’t seem to have been blogged. That’s a shame as I was looking forward to it. Have I just missed it somewhere?

    1. I-G: I’m sure you’re right apart from a few short ones like BIOG. Word-endings can help, but I’m pretty sure that Times setters do their best to avoid using -ATION, -ING, -MENT and other common endings, esp. the same one more than once in a puzzle.

      Exotic letters and your Fe example are good ideas too. I’d extend the Fe one to considering all the possible positions for Fe in the answer if you reckon it’s likely to be used in the wordplay.

      A report on the Sat 19 April puzzle will be up later today.

  12. A tip I’ve picked up since taking on the Times on a daily basis is to be on the lookout for deliberate misdirection. More common examples are flower = river etc but some setters (yes you, Anax) make it a feature of their clues. In the current COW DIY, for instance Anax’s definition for silver medal is “one decorating second home”. It takes a keen mind to make the leap from a wealthy banker with a paintbrush to a sprinter breaking the tape.

    In a lot of cases it appears that the setter uses a word or phrase that enhances surface reading, so where a surface is paticularly smooth look for a word in there that can have another unconnected meaning. Of course, looking at clues in this way can have its drawbacks, like today when I took “complaint” to mean in the medical sense when in fact it was just protest.

    Also be aware that the word in the surface reading can be pronounced differently from the defined term: one of 7dpenguin’s favourite ever clues is something like “Use shower for washing up and cleaning clothes?” (5,5). The answer is water meter where what you naturally read as use shower (rhyming with booze power) is actally use shower to rhyme with goose mower.

    1. Having cheated on both:

      I suspect I’d get the first one given some checking letters. It was ANY OLD IRON. But the fact that this was a song sung by Harry Champion would have escaped me – I’m too young/ignorant to know who Harry C was. I doubt that even an eliminator would include a clue like this these days, which indicates the Champion connection by just putting in his surname.

      The second one turns out to be CRISPIAN – a Shak. spelling of Crispin, the patron saint of cobblers, or “last saint” as the clue has it. Sure enough, Henry V Act 4 Scene 3 has “This day is called the Feast of Crispian”, as well as the more familiar (to me at least) “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day”.

      As for “techniques of solving difficult clues”, the real key in each case is simply possession of the right music-hall or literary knowledge. Seeing the significance of ‘casual’ or ‘last’ might lead to a lucky guess, but not to a fully-understood answer.

      These clues and others from 1970s puzzles aren’t much of a guide to what happens in difficult Times puzzles thirty-plus years later. In the document you link too (introductory material from the second book of Times Crosswords in the old Penguin series, and sample clues presumably from the same puzzles, which appeared in 1972 and 1973), there are example clues and bits of advice that wouldn’t help these days.

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