A little logic with the logodaedali

Memorable extracts from a final article by Edmund Akenhead, as Crossword Editor, Saturday, August 20th 1983

Fine words may butter no parsnips, but words in general provide bread and butter for those harmless drudges (as Samuel Johnson describes them), the lexicographers and, of course, those daily deceivers, the crossword compilers.

Together they provide an interesting example of symbiosis, and now that Collins Dictionaries have undertaken the sponsorship of the annual crossword championships we may expect to find the effect of crosswords on dictionaries and vice versa becoming more marked.

How about a new “usage label” to join (colloq), (joc), (derog) and (vulg) in the form of (cwp) for “crossword puzzles”? This could appear with e.g. “bower = violinist”, “flower = river, Po, Exe, Fal, Ure, Dee, Lea etc”, “lower = cow”, “shower = demonstrator” and “tower = breakdown recovery vehicle” ‒ it is extraordinary how many -ow words lend themselves to such duplicity.

Some dictionaries are created almost exclusively for crossword solvers and compilers. Such a one is The Anagram Dictionary by Michael Curl, recently published at £2.95 by Papermac, the paperback division of Macmillan. I looked to see if it had anything to add to “Derange grandee, angered and enraged by exploding grenade” and it had ‒ the grandee should have course been en garde; “angered” and “enraged” form what the author calls cognate anagrams, or anagrams which define each other.

In addition to such well-known oldies as “Honor est a Nilo” for “Horatio Nelson” and “Flit on cheering angel” for “Florence Nightingale”, there are some up-to-date ones. You may make your choice between “That great charmer” and “Meg, the arch tartar” (8,8) for one of these (no prizes offered).

Throughout the years of the crossword championship, competitors have known that the dictionaries I have relied on have been the Concise Oxford and the Chambers 20th Century. Old-time navigators used to take three chronometers to provide a majority decision should one of them fail to keep proper time, and now the Collins English Dictionary has been added to make a trio of referees. Solvers of Times puzzles, however, need not think that they should have all these dictionaries since it is only very rarely that a word is used that does not appear in all three. They may be relieved to hear that my own reference books do not include that magnum opus, the Oxford English Dictionary, my reasoning being that if a word or a spelling or a meaning is only found in the OED it is unlikely to be known to the majority of readers.

When, early this year, I was first introduced to the Collins English Dictionary I turned at once to “infer” and saw to my chagrin that it included “to hint or imply” among its definitions, the said chagrin however being immediately dispersed by the following note: “Usage. The use of infer in the sense of imply often occurs in both speech and writing but is avoided by all careful speakers and writers of English”. Exactly ‒ and pausing only to check that the definitions of the word “substitute” did not include the word “replace”, I decided the Collins had the right ideas, and I found that its policy of giving almost every derivative word its own main heading, made such words easier to find than in other dictionaries in which to find (for instance) “buttercup” you have to peruse the paragraph under “butter”. Its inclusion of some proper names is also helpful.

The author is the Crossword editor of The Times. He retires this autumn after 18 years.