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Mysteries of the crossword-puzzle mind
by Linda Seebach
Scripps Howard News Service


January 01, 2005

Good Morning! And Happy 2005.

Since today's a holiday, you probably don't want to read about anything Important but Boring, and that's even if you're not nursing a hangover. So I hope you'll indulge my writing about something a bit lighter: Crossword puzzles.

I can't remember when I didn't like to do crosswords, because my mother was devoted to them.. We lived on Long Island, and every Sunday my father drove six blocks north to the candy store across from the elementary school I attended and bought the Sunday New York Times.

The rest of the week, we made do with Newsday, which is why I never knew, until someone told me just a few years ago, that the daily puzzles get harder as the week goes on. Friday is difficult; Saturday is often fiendish.

Will Shortz, the Times' puzzle editor, has said that the Sunday paper is intended to fall between Thursday and Friday in difficulty.

When my mother had time, she would sit in the scratchy green chair by the front door and work on the puzzle, with me curled up beside her. As the mother of two young children with a house to keep _ one unburdened with labor-saving devices that hadn't been invented in the 1940s _ she didn't sit down very often, so those times were precious.

Here's just one small serious thought for you to ponder. My mother was born in 1909, and her parents were recent German immigrants who spoke little or no English at that time. She started school speaking mostly German, and she left after the eighth grade to go to work as a comptometer operator for a Wall Street brokerage house.

But that was when an elementary school teacher with only a high school degree herself took a class with 35 or 40 children, many of them from immigrant families, and taught them all to read. Why doesn't it happen now?

A time came when I began to suggest answers to my mother, which she didn't like, and then to finish the puzzle before she had time to sit down, which she didn't like at all. So I took to doing it in my head. You think doing a crossword in ink is tempting fate? Ha. Try doing one in invisible ink.

To return to the present, puzzles tend to arrive in my life in pairs. Often, when I did two puzzles on the same day, the same word would be an answer in both of them.

The first example I wrote down, for the purposes of this column, was "Handout with a fried chicken dinner" (WSJ, Oct. 8) and "Alternatives to finger bowls" (NYT, Oct. 8): Answer, WETNAP(S). From the same two puzzles, YENS was the answer to "Itches," another clue in both. (I think plurals and verb forms count, and since this is my party I'll count if I want to.) How likely is that?

There must be hundreds of thousands of words and phrases that could show up in a puzzle. Maybe it's like the math problem: How many people do you need to have at a party before the probability that two have the same birthday? The answer is 23, which is much lower than people guess.

Still, the probability that there will be two words in common seems to be close to a third, in my entirely nonscientific sample. And I have two examples with three words in common, one with four and one with five!

Another thing I wonder about is why I remember certain words or facts. In one recent puzzle, I filled in "Loren's husband Carlo" (PONTI). Sure, that's not terribly obscure, but why do I remember it? I rarely go to movies, I've probably never seen a Loren film and I don't even read movie reviews. Why would I know her husband's name?

In the same puzzle, the clue was "French soldier" and I filled in POILU without a second's hesitation (it crossed PONTI at the "O" but that was just confirmation). I can't imagine I have ever used that word, and I can't guess where I might have seen it. Some First World War novel, I suppose, that I read decades ago and have completely forgotten.

If you're reading this, you know what I did first thing Saturday morning. I hope you got an equally enjoyable start on the holiday, and the year.



Linda Seebach is an editorial writer for the News. She can be reached
at seebach(at)

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