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ROC setter’s blog

Posted by poat on 15 September 2009

Dave H having gently twisted my arm for a setter’s blog…I suppose this puzzle had a 20-year gestation period. Many moons ago when I first had the notion of submitting crosswords to The Listener (which was still a magazine at the time), one of the ideas I played around with was a 6×6 ‘magic word square’ that I had devised. Actually it wasn’t very satisfactory, because it included a glaring foreign word in row/column 5:

DHARMA

HUTIAS

ATOMIC

RIMOSE

MAISON

ASCEND (or ASCENT)

Despite the familiarity of MAISON, and its use from time to time in certain French-influenced fields such as fashion and cuisine, it has still failed to make it to Chambers in its own right. I nevertheless proposed to embed it in the centre of a grid, concealing its identity by means of a number of long jumbles (e.g. ATOMIC could be part of DOMINATRICES, the clue for which might be something like “Erotic maidens lashing with no end of discipline”). Potentially that could mean twelve intersecting answers of twelve letters each, with the remaining grid fill using answers entered normally, and the uncertainty in the centre would in theory be unravelled by solvers on the basis of the word square pattern. I did come up with a couple of grid fills on this basis, but never got round to finishing the puzzle, probably because the ‘jumble’ component was way too high.

I returned to the idea later, wondering whether to combine it with Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’ in some way (for which the final word ASCEND or ASCENT would be important). However, internet research threw up a large number of much more interesting word squares, including a number of 8×8 squares that were compliant with Chambers. Here are some nice ones, which I can’t get to format properly:

NAVICERT, ANIMATER, VICINAGE, IMITATES, CANAKINS, ETATISTE, REGENTAL, TRESSELS

SOUBISES, OPPOSITE, UPROOTAL, BOOKMATE, ISOMERIC, SITARIST, ETATISME, SELECTED

TOPMASTS, OCTANTAL, PTOMAINE, MAMILLAE, ANALYTIC, STILTISH, TANAISTE, SLEECHES

PLAGUIER, LAMINATE, AMULETIC, GILLAROO, UNEASILY, IATRICAL, ETIOLATE, RECOYLED

BASSETTS, AXLETREE, SLUSHIER, SESTETTE, ETHERION, TRITIATE, TEETOTAL, SERENELY

SAPSAGOS, ALAIMENT, PARLANDO, SILURIAN, AMARETTI, GENITURE, ONDATRAS, STONIEST

OPALESCE, PIMENTON, AMENDING, LENTANDO, ENDANGER, STINGING, CONDENSE, ENGORGED

…and so on, with some real beauties among them (there was even one with SCRABBLE as the first word, which caught my attention as a lover of the game). But the standout pattern for aesthetic interest of content was the BACKACHE square I eventually settled on. These had all been computer-generated by word buff Graham Toal and were presented online in their hundreds, although subsequent research established that my favourite had first been published in Word Ways magazine in the 1990’s. Unfortunately it looks as though the link to Graham’s webpage has now been taken down.

I also explored the squares of different lengths, picking out a few others of interest that I might be able to combine as an unseen square for reconstruction by the solver. These included a variety of words that might be fruitful for puzzling purposes, e.g. WHOOPS (a missing entry?), but in the end the possibilities of SYNTAX, having consulted its definition, seemed too good to bypass. This enabled solvers to construct both squares piecemeal, but in a thematically coherent way, the preamble being worded so as to mirror much of the relevant Chambers definition.

The Listener website revealed that smaller word squares had been used in a batch of puzzles by Tracer in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but nothing since then. It was therefore just a case of constructing a 12×12 grid around the 8×8, which of necessity included some jumbles as clued entries (although they would later resolve to form part of the central square). I noted that some could be backwards entries rather than mere jumbles which I know are frowned on by some, and made the split as orderly as possible with a 20:10:10 count of normal, jumbled and backwards entries – the last being indicated by the extra words, thus constraining me to two-word definitions in each case (and I tried to keep these as straightforward as possible, ‘quick crossword’ style). Then it was merely a case of writing the clues – for me, always an agonisingly long process.

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One Response to “ROC setter’s blog”

  1. erwinch said

    I am amazed by how much a completed grid can conceal even after you have been staring at it for ages.  I had been reading Imperium by Robert Harris, which chronicles a period in Cicero’s life and all that I could see was CICERO reading across (not down!).  I couldn’t recall him having being involved in any constructions, thinking of buildings, but as it turned out syntax was strangely appropriate for a great orator.  In the end I confess that I found the theme by googling the symmetrically placed ciceroni endemism (the latter again only being spotted across) – I ought to be ashamed of myself.  I have always felt superior to those books of Word Search Puzzles but perhaps they would provide excellent practice for aspiring Listener solvers.

    I also struggled with the initial completion of the grid and failed George Heard’s 1ac test with merry England proving stubborn until about half way.  I found the clueing tough but fair and I would say right up there with the likes of Sabre and Pieman so very well done and thank you.  All your agonising over clues was time well spent.

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