August 13, 2007

Cartoons and crosswords

Have you seen the latest Pixar animated film, Ratatouille? My family and I all loved it. Funny, sweet, and with a heartening take-home message: "Anyone can cook." That was the motto of the late, great toon chef Auguste Gusteau and the title of his fictional cookbook. In the movie (and this is hardly a spoiler for anyone who's seen a single ad for Ratatouille), Remy is a rat who has a gift for cooking.

I think the same philosophy holds true for crossword puzzles. So many people say, "Oh, I can't do those things." They'll skim the list of clues for a crossword, see little that jumps out as something they know, and they'll put it down. But I do believe that anyone who has a modicum of intelligence and takes an interest in crosswords can learn how to kick cruciverbal butt. They may not all be able to triumph at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but honestly, I think average Janes and Joes can teach themselves the tricks of the trade.

Of course, plenty of people just don't care about crosswords one way or another. But really, a tool like my book can help a new solver crack the code if he or she is motivated to try.

There are so many words and names that are woefully obscure to most Americans, but always on tap for crossword junkies. Sure, we all had a first time. We weren't born knowing that Charlie Chaplin married Eugene O'Neill's much-younger daughter, Oona (that name is the Irish version of her mom's name, Agnes). We didn't know that Uta Hagen taught acting. We didn't know that a seed coat is called an aril or that there's a group of arum plants. My book (like several others) includes lists of common words seen in crosswords. Study that vocabulary list and it won't much enhance your conversational skills, but it'll help you with crosswords.

Paying attention to the letter patterns of words is also helpful. If there's a longish answer lining the bottom or right side of a crossword grid, it probably contains the sort of letters that other words end with, for example. Like S and E and R and D.

Learning how to extract all the information from a clue is also key. Sometimes it's tricky and you can't tell if a noun like fish is plural or singular, or if a verb like put is in the past or present tense. But more often, it's obvious what part of speech the clue represents, and the answer will play the same role. Experienced solvers wil remember this convention, and it will help keep them from falling down the rabbit hole of dead-wrong answers.

The next lesson (a.k.a. book excerpt): The Top 10 Ways Constructors Try to Trick You.