What's the good word?

Every crossword junkie knows that obscure words have a habit of springing to mind while familiar ones are forever elusive

Morning coffee, boil milk, soak clothes — an Irish family of actors? Heat the tawa, squeeze the lime, cut the fruit — large dam in Egypt? Dhobi knocks for clothes to be ironed. I beam fondly at the dear man. "Moron, idiot, daft, dumb, nuts." Internally spoken, of course. "Jejune, puerile, asinine, infantile." Domestic employee complains about bus fare hike but I'm preoccupied with officials of the Ottoman Empire. What fare hike? I haven't seen the front page yet. The only page I have dived into without surfacing is...

You know which. No clues needed. The symptoms are telling: the blank look, the whirring brain, the tendency to yell "Tactical!" or "Cloister!" when asked where's the new bar of soap. I've recently turned into a crossword junkie and I sympathise with all you fellow addicts. If you've buried your nose in Page 2 of this supplement instead of reading my column you are entirely forgiven.

The world is talking about the sudoku craze. Sudoku, pshaw! Or if you prefer it, tchah! (Five-letter words expressing contempt.) The Japanese puzzle is a mere bagatelle. And to think that people look up the Internet for tips on how to crack it. Hah! I scoff at, scorn, spurn, reject, dismiss such websites. After four or five days of wrestling with the confounded thing I figured out on my own how to handle it. All it takes is logic, commonsense, and a trusty forefinger. You run said finger up, down and across rows to spot blank spaces that a certain number absolutely cannot, or absolutely must, occupy. Fill in only, repeat only, what you are positive about. Plug away at it methodically and you'll complete it in 15 minutes. A word of caution: sudoku comes in many levels of difficulty, and I'm only talking about the easy kind that you find in the main section of this newspaper.

As far as brainteasers go, I prefer those that deal with words, not numbers. The simple crossword and not the cryptic, since I'm no genius. The Guardian Quick Crossword is perfect for me. The clues are neither boringly simple nor maddeningly tough. They tax my brain just enough to keep me coming back for more. In the beginning, fired by the fanaticism of the new convert, I would put aside all chores until I had inked in every little square. But now I sensibly fill in whatever I can over the morning cuppa (or mugga, rather) and solve the rest in sporadic bursts.

How about you? Have you got over the obsessive phase? That's when you walk about the house muttering what sounds like a Vedic mantra — "sdem sfem, slem, smem, srem" — as you try out various letters to see which one fits the gap. Then there is the boastful phase. You can't stop crowing about how quickly you got "tetchy" and "circumspect" but you have to be careful not to get bashed up by your violently jealous friend (mine nearly killed me for getting "jiggery-pokery"). Naturally, you do not reveal how "rely" or "void" foxed you for hours.

That's the intriguing thing about crossword clues: obscure words could spring to mind while familiar ones elude you. Some clues take you back to childhood fables and nursery rhymes, which is how you are able to hit upon "Inchcape Rock" and solve "Dwarfs' house guest" (Snow White, of course). Some clues keep recurring. Come on, fans, what's a giraffe-like animal? Say it with me, all together now: "Okapi!"

It's when you crack the clever clues that you feel the most triumphant: name part (title role) or hat — canal (Panama). Anagrams are fun, and one of my favourites was "Bedroom (one hopes not)". Boredom — ooh, nasty one. That the clue-writer had a sense of mischief was also evident in "What are you doing?" The answer started with a "q" and, imagining it was a French translation of the sentence, I was about to give up when it struck me: "Quick Crossword"!

By the way, I hope you're an honest player. No peeking into the dictionary unless you want to look up a word you know but whose meaning you want to confirm. The thesaurus is out of bounds. No encyclopaedias, either. You are, however, permitted to look into the atlas to locate the Sea of Marmara. Agreed, your rules might be different from mine. You might be the sort who seeks every kind of helpline because you can't rest until you've finished the day's crossword. I think that's not very good for your blood pressure. Here's some advice to save you much stress, strain, tension, exertion, anxiety. If a clue points you to an arcane word, a word you're sure you've never heard, learn to let it go. The sky's not going to fall if you don't know that a ketch is a sailing vessel, or that the Maquis was a French underground movement.

If you saw me now, though, you would spot a look of quiet satisfaction on my face. Today's crossword is all but complete. The only missing word is "herring pond (World War II slang)". I have no clue what it is. Tomorrow I shall be enlightened. But wait, why not try some guesswork? I think I know what fits the empty spaces. Atlantic Ocean.

Send your feedback to


Recommended for you