CTS #14: The Freakshow

“Step right up, ladies and gents! You’ve seen all the commonest forms of wordplay, the pedestrian, the mundane! Now it’s time to explore the freakshow, encompassing the outer limits of verbal experience! What you see may amaze you, may even repulse you, but could you live with yourselves, knowing that you looked away???”

One of the first webpages I ever discovered was Jeff Miller’s Collection of Word Oddities and Trivia. Still well-maintained today, the collection is an outstanding body of research. Couple it with an extensive glossary of literary terms, and you’ve got something close to a full canon of wordplay. Not that a fact about Dutch words with six vowels, or an AIEEE listing in a dictionary, are absolute need-to-knows, but it’s about including every wordplay you can imagine wanting to know.

At this point in our survey, some of the forms of wordplay have already been claimed. Homophones, homograms and homonyms belong, for the most part, to the punster. The containment of unusual strings, like RSTU or the five-vowel combos of QUEUEING and MIAOUING? The camouflage has that covered. Rhyming puzzles of various types, dealing as they do with phonetic strings? Camouflage. And some of the more literary wordplays are more the province of the Marian… though in that case, there may be some room for disagreement about where to draw the line. I suggest the matter be resolved by food fight.

What’s left? Well, the first thing that’s left for you is a confession.

Region capture 10I’ve had some trouble all along, hammering out exactly which subcategories should go where. When we discussed tokenist, fractal and merger camouflages, there was, in the back of my mind, a possible fourth type, the pure. But should it go among the camouflages or in this more miscellaneous section? Its theme-related content wasn’t hidden within each theme entry– it was each theme entry. Check out this pure accompanier by Don Gagliardo. The middle down entries HIT/THE go with 12 others: [HIT THE] SACK, [HIT THE] GAS, [HIT THE] TRAIL, [HIT THE] PAVEMENT, [HIT THE] BRAKES, [HIT THE] ROOF, [HIT THE] DECK, [HIT THE] BOTTLE, [HIT THE] BULL’S-EYE, [HIT THE] SKIDS, [HIT THE] HAY and [HIT THE] SPOT.

Region capture 21John Schiff offers up a pure anagram puzzle– and because anagrams by themselves would be a vague and fuzzy theme, this one has a root-phrase theme of auto parts, and a “reversal” approach to the anagrams– PLATE VANITY, SEAT RUMBLE, CONTROL CRUISE, BLADE WIPER– aptly summed up in the defining entry AUTOREVERSE. These anagrams are about as chunky as they come, and more finely blended ones might be tougher to assign such a consistent root-phrase theme or conversion theme. Still, I know my TERGIVERSATION-INTERROGATIVES-REINVESTIGATOR troika (thanks, Word Oddities!) will have its day. Someday. Someday.

Region capture 8This Vic Fleming is a pure synonymous or monoclue puzzle, with one clue, “Uh-uh,” inspiring all the theme answers– I WOULDN’T / IF I WERE YOU, BAD IDEA, BACK OFF, THINK AGAIN, and DON’T DO IT. Or should that be “discouraging all the theme answers?” The synonyms aren’t as “tight” as possible, with the first two following a slightly different line of thinking than the last three. But all of them “work” with their clue.

The closely related straight-answer patterned-clue puzzle might have four major theme entries clued with “Uh-uh,” “Uh-huh,” “Whuh-uh?,” and “Uh… uh…”

mgwcc127A pure etymological puzzle is purely theoretical to me now, but the closest I can find is this fractal etymological by Matt Gaffney, using four two-word phrases– ALGEBRA MAGAZINE, GHOUL ADMIRAL, CIPHER ELIXIR and SHERBET ASSASSIN– all with their roots in Arabic. Another etymological puzzle might feature words that owe their origins to comic strips, or brand names.

And hey, how about that subset of pure cryptogrammatic puzzles, the pure palindromic? Talk about easy solving: all you have to do is figure out the theme and half the letters of the theme entries, and the rest is as easy as looking into a mirror. (Okay, looking into a mirror is easier for some than others. Adolescence gave me issues.) Randall J. Hartman serves up four artificial entries– SEVILLE EEL LIVES, WARSAW NUN WAS RAW, RENO ROCK CORONER and BOSTON DID NOT SOB…


I have to imagine the Reno rock coroner is in fact also the Reno loner. That doesn’t seem like an occupation where someone could make a lot of healthy, well-rounded friends.

At this point, well might you wonder: is there anything new under the sun? Is there any form of wordplay in one crossword that isn’t echoed somewhere else?

Well, it certainly seems like there should be more than one oxymoron-themed puzzle, but all I can find right now is this Daniel A. Finan and its LONG SHORTS, ROUND FLATS, NEW OLDS, FAULTY SOUNDS, LITTLE LOTS, BAD FAIR GOODS, LEFT RIGHTS, LAST INITIALS, PRO CONS, TAPED LIVES and TOP BOTTOMS. Call these odd grids out the chimeras or chimerical freakshow puzzles. In some cases, they’re just the types that haven’t earned their own category yet.

Other times, as in this Dan Naddor, they seem destined to remain in their own circus cart forever. “Long monosyllables” is just too narrow a theme to support much of a genre no matter how you slice it. SQUELCHED, STRETCHED, STRAIGHTS, SPLOTCHED, SCRATCHED and STRENGTHS– all words with NINE LETTERS and ONE SYLLABLE– set a crosswording record that may never be broken.

Region capture 4At first glance, this Brendan Emmett Quigley seems like another chimera– its theme entries, AFTEREFFECTS, DESEGREGATED, REVERBERATED and STEWARDESSES are the longest words (excluding the variants DESEGREGATES and REVERBERATES) typed on the left side of a standard QWERTYUIOP keyboard (QWERTASDFGZXCVB). Some will tell you that they’re “typed with the left hand,” but honestly, when you’ve got a Diet Coke to sip and no time to waste, you’ll type with whatever hand you please. Although the puzzle is a record-setter in its way, this kind of limitation is actually fairly common. Call it the theme letter bank.

Jonesin' "Key Words" crossword answersMatt Jones works with a narrower letter bank, inspired by the letters of the alphabet used in musical notation (ABCDEFG). But his theme entries are artificial, not natural: BAGGED A BAD EGG, FADED CABBAGE, FEED GAGA BEEF and BEE GEE FAD DEAD. Seems to be a rather depressing scene at the grocery/music store.

At least a couple of NYT crosswords have managed to apply the QWERTASDFGZXCVB mix to every entry in their grid. This homogenous letter bank puzzle is much more difficult to pull off smoothly in any notable way. But thanks to modern technology, not nearly so hard as it used to be! A little fiddling around with Crossword Compiler‘s Word List Manager’s “Duplicate/Filter List” function can do wonders. Once upon a time, it was considered the height of artistry to compose a crossword without using the letter E.

No more. Michael Wiesenberg’s relatively recent entry in the E-less genre was not even his first, let alone the first recorded– that was one Gayle Dean, in the 5/4/99 New York Times. Patrick Berry managed one that used no vowel except A, Peter Gordon made one which used only the ten 1-point letters in Scrabble, and David J. Kahn likewise used a bank of ten letters– and unlike Gordon’s but like the others, excluding E. Matt Gaffney’s 2011 work at right arguably eclipses them all, using nothing for its letter bank but the eight letters in PORTUGAL. Still a mystery is how Gaffney can afford to go to Portugal when he spends so much time working with letter banks.

Region capture 36

Six months before Gaffney claimed this letter-bank-related record, he lost another. The triple pangram above and to the left was one of his, and stood as a record– tied, but unbroken– from November 14, 1998 to November 18, 2010, when Peter Wentz finally introduced the quadruple pangram at right. Gaffney gets a couple of style points for the extra theme entry– MIND MY P’S AND Q’S– crossing his self-descriptive TRIPLE PANGRAM, while Wentz’s QUADRUPLE PANGRAM requires a 16×15 grid to fit. It’s dangerous to say this in an age of ever-advancing technology, but given that Wentz’s is pushing the normal daily grid size, this is probably as high as this particular record will go until someone pushes it out a bit further. Hmmmm. QUINTUPLE PANGRAM is also 16 letters– but QUINTUPLE PANGRAMS is 17, appropriate if someone created a pair of them… hmmmmmmmm?

Like Mieses, these high-achieving puzzles can sometimes strain too hard to meet their ambitious goals. This Henry Hook is considerably more modest, employing 25 letters (all but L) and giving away its secret with the multi-part answer for “Noel”: CHRISTMAS REFRAIN / THAT DESCRIBES / WHAT MAKES / THIS CROSSWORD / NOT QUITE A PANGRAM.

Hmmm. Funny how that multi-part answer continues, or runs on, from one entry to the next. Why, it’s almost as if it were also an example of the type we’ll be discussing next week… the ever-continuing run-on!


[fails to dodge tomatoes]

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5 Responses to CTS #14: The Freakshow

  1. Amy Reynaldo says:

    Thanks for the links, T!

  2. john farmer says:

    Thanks, T, for the weekly write-ups. Nice change of pace from the regular focus on the puzzles of the day.

    Since you bring up “records”* a few times, let me note a few puzzles not mentioned above.

    The “left hand only” puzzle has been done a few times. See this Patrick Merrell puzzle of Dec 15, 2005. More recently, Paul Hunsberger did the same on March 8 of this year. Those are two that come to mind, though there may be other examples.

    The triple pangram has been done at least one other time, by Michael Shteyman on July 10, 2003. You might notice the grid, an homage to the earlier Gaffney.

    * I think when we say “records” in crosswords there’s always a caveat. Crosswords go back nearly a hundred years, the popular databases not quite two decades (with a select list of puzzles), and our memories often much less than that.

  3. sandirhodes says:

    Thanks for the updated link on the word oddities site — the old aol one hasn’t worked for awhile!

  4. T Campbell says:

    John, thanks a bunch for the tip-off about the “left-handed” puzzles: I thought those were pretty notable and edited links to them into the body of this piece, for posterity’s sake. Thanks in principle for the other triple pangram too, but it was already linked, at the clause that says Gaffney’s record had been tied but unbroken.

    And yeah, about that “records” caveat… don’t I know it, brother. (DRAT you, Robert Stilgenbauer, and your 1949 crossword that nobody told me about beforehand!)

  5. john farmer says:

    Yes, T, you had the link and I missed it. I wonder if Robert Stilgenbauer ever did a quintuple pangram.


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