The Point of Crosswords

Someone once asked me what, if anything, was the point of crosswords? A setter once came close to giving the sort of answer that made sense to me. "A crossword composer," he said, "is entering a game in which the point is to lose gracefully." Of course he was speaking as a setter and he was addressing a specific problem, which is that the clues one sets should be neither too hard nor too easy. If the solver can't solve them, then there is 'no point'. If on the other hand they are too easy for the solver then the 'point' is similarly diminished. But what, I wonder, is the point for the solver?

If the intention of the setter is 'to lose gracefully', then presumably the solver must hope to win. But he too must do it 'gracefully', which is to say that in the process of solving a clue or a puzzle he must acknowledge the artistry and invention of the setter. The perfect clue, so they say, is one whose solution eludes the solver for a time but which will, when he finally solves it, elicit a 'groan of satisfaction' or (its close cousin) a 'smile of dismay'. And yet this is curious terminology for really there are no winners or losers in crosswords. Someone does, to be sure, hold the record for solving the Times crossword more quickly than anyone else. And from time to time there are crossword competitions in which the prize goes to the quickest solver. But speed is not really the point. One cannot appreciate artistry when solving at speed.

The 'point', then, must surely be something to do with words. There is no limit to the variety English provides. We have only to think of a word like 'set'. Set means many things. The OED uses no less than 60,000 words to define all of them. It has 58 uses as a noun, 126 as a verb, and 10 as a participial adjective. But it is not only the scale of meanings in English that make crosswords so entertaining, it is also that the same word can contradict itself. Cleave, for example, can mean 'to cut in half' or 'to stick together'. Left can mean 'departed' or 'remaining'. And so perhaps we have to think of it differently. Crosswords are not really a game at all. The nearest parallel I can think of is dancing. Crosswords are a dance to the music of words. The setter leads, the solver follows, but each bring to the experience their own flair and personality. And the music, our extraordinarily rich and diverse language, may be fast or slow, gentle or thrilling.

The THREE RIVERS project, then, is an invitation to dance - to dance through the times, places, words and rivers of the North-East of England. I hope you enjoy it. It should be fun.

Sandy Balfour November 2005

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