When are proper nouns fair game? (A discussion between Sue Gleason and K Watkins)

I Regrets - K Watkins

Bron Burwell pointed out a regionalism in the puzzle NoseInABook, by K Watkins. This prompted K to divulge: "I object to clues which require specific cultural awareness (heroes of this sport, actors in that movie, etc.), and I wish I'd realized that I was calling for it here."

II Query - Sue Gleason

Do you object equally to clues that require knowledge of, say, Shakespeare and Cole Porter, than to current popular references like tv and sports?

III Reply - K Watkins

It's a good question. My answer has ended up being pretty long. And I realize that I'm very curious about your position on the same question.

Speaking for myself, I'm in my middle fifties and tend to make assumptions which by now are probably rather quaint about the body of knowledge which "should" be readily available in a mind with a "standard education". Like anyone else, I've paid eager attention to various things and little or none to others, but I try not to assume that people necessarily know what I know in areas of specialized or ephemeral information. And I would much prefer that they treat me likewise.

In my own constructing, I try to avoid proper nouns in general. The tools I use most outside my own mind are a collegiate dictionary and, of course, your lovely, lovely constructing software.

Shakespeare I consider entirely legit; probably the Bible likewise, though much more cautiously. I don't want to offend people, of course, and it's tricky to construct Biblical clues which imply neither that the Bible is revelation -- which gets some people's goat -- nor that it isn't -- which does the same to different people. In a pinch I might assume that Mother Goose, Winnie the Pooh (Milne, not Disney), and other children's classics of the same era are familiar. Most other works, from the Bhagavad-Gita to the Pirates of the Caribbean (including Porter), I prefer to use only when I'm really stuck....

Overall, my preference is for clues which call for a wide vocabulary and an ability to make less-than-obvious associations. In the end, though, cultural references are inevitable; I suppose I assume the cultural awareness of folks who have fulfilled the collegiate distribution requirements which were common in the USA about thirty-five years ago. I try not to make assumptions about their college major or their interests beyond that, unless you count assuming that, if they're doing double-crostics, they enjoy playing with the language.

On the other hand, having a wide vocabulary implies a generalized cultural awareness of many things, without a detailed one. For instance, I would expect people to be able to come up with the term "boogie-woogie"; to know that it refers to a style of music and dancing; probably to know that it was once very popular indeed and even roughly when (say, at which end of what century); and possibly to recognize the approximate size and instrumentation of a band playing it. But I wouldn't expect them to know who played it, or just where or when, or the names of individual compositions -- or at least, if I did, I would consider it a hard clue indeed, of the teasing sort which a lucky few might get promptly but most get only by finishing the rest of the puzzle.

How about you?

IV Reply - Sue Gleason

It is a good question. And I would like to publish your answer, and my response, and invite others to describe their own preferences. Or maybe it's a can of worms!

I am turned off by things I would rather not know anything about - like sports and recent pop culture. If I did know the answer, I would not want to admit it!

I also hate thinking about war and history and torture and terrorism and all that important stuff too. So I would rather leave that out of my puzzles as well. (OK, maybe some general history is tolerable...)

On the other hand, I consider songs like those by Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Gershwin as modern classics. Any puzzles that brings one of their tunes to mind makes me very happy, so I welcome it.

I think it's fine for some answers to a puzzle to be things or words I don't know; I often like acrostics better if I need to work backwards in order to finish solving them.

I love unusual words and I would like to know as much of our fair language as possible. On the other hand, I have been told that "normal people" are turned off by esoteric words (the way I am by sports and tv facts) and that gives me pause.

I don't think I do object to proper nouns as answers - any more than phrases, or quote fragments. If mixing in a few of these other types of answers in with the single-word answers increases liveliness, I welcome it. On the other hand, some constructors (like K.Watkins) are masterful at supplying sparkle with clever clues and unusual answers.

V. Further response - K. Watkins

Sure, feel free to publish my answer. And I look forward to those of others. That would be in the Forum, right? It may indeed be a can of worms, but the catch should be interesting!

I'm not so much ashamed when I happen to know various pop culture references as peeved that someone expects me to. But I'm certainly right with you in not wanting to think about war and terrorism and such, at least not while I'm doing puzzles.

I don't especially mind the musicals; it's just that my knowledge is spotty. For instance, my recollections of _Kiss Me, Kate_ are persistently corrupted by my detailed acquaintance with _Taming of the Shrew_, but on the other hand I can name Gene Kelly's means of transportation in the chase scene of _It's Always Fair Weather_ without batting an eyelash. This is probably the arena where I really count on the fun of working backwards on unfamiliar topics. As a constructor, I especially have to watch out with Shakespeare; I've been involved with Shakespearean theater since I was ten, I did my dissertation on him, and I've seen the whole canon in live performance at one time or another, so it's all too easy for me to assume that obscure details of the plays are obvious.

As for folks who are turned off by esoteric words...I have to admit that I don't understand why they're doing double-crostics. I don't mean that they have no good reason; I just mean that their reasons are alien to me. I doubt I could construct puzzles for them if I tried. As you know, when I'm having a hard time with construction -- and sometimes even when I'm not -- I'm prone to ask people to cope with weird puns and concocted phrases rather than modern celebrities and media events.

    "Why does Mrs. Sanders have a concrete gnome in her garden?"
    "Maybe he's the plant manager."
               - _Grand Avenue_ 27 May 06

VI Invitation - Sue Gleason

If any other members want to address these matters, please send in your opinions, which I will add at my discretion.

One other point: I think there is an important place for puzzles using only everyday words. I think they are a possible means of bringing in new solvers, and younger solvers. And they provide some relaxing moments for the diehards. Many of the puzzles by Peggy Mahar, Jean Reno, Chris McShane, and Mary Feldman are of this type. I wish I had more of them to offer.

VII Note - K Watkins

I agree! I only wish I were ingenious enough to construct them.

VIII Addition - Carolyn Roosevelt

I would also commend Mel Taub along those lines: his puzzles seem to rely more on a broad vocabulary rather than the ins and outs of temporal culture. I grew up with the dcs in the Saturday Review, a fact to which I doubtless owe a considerable chunk of my own vocabulary, and that's the style I aspire to--say, a ratio of six or eight 'dictionary' clues to every one that assumes the solver has read or heard a particular play, song, or novel.

That being said, dc fans are a well-read bunch, aren't we? I'm inclined to assume that doesn't just mean books, but at least a portion of the current press, as it might be the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and in my case the Sun and Sports Illustrated. (I leave books at home and carry periodicals for buses and lunch breaks.) So there are some people we are bound to hear about more than we happen to care about them.

On the sports side, for instance, I assume people know that Tiger Woods and Tom Watson are golfers, but I wouldn't assume they know Justin Leonard or Lanny Wadkins. Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe for hockey; Shaquille O'Neill and Michael Jordan for basketball; Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, both Archie and Peyton Manning--the top five names in any major sport would not be out of line. Baseball seems to get more than its share (I'm think of NYT crosswords), perhaps because 'Alou' and 'Ott' are irresistible crossword words, and perhaps because the history of baseball feels deeper and wider to an older audience.

--Which brings up the generational question. What we know is a function of what we've lived through, and it could hardly be otherwise. The older constructors use allusions from earlier times, which are thereby shown to have stood the test of time. I know more than I 'should' about Tin Pan Alley and Broadway from before I was born; that is, I've heard of things in puzzles that I never would have heard or seen firsthand, and I do feel the richer for it.

The reverse situation, where I learn from puzzles about cultural events that I lived through but ignored, seems a long way from happening, for a couple of reasons: because there are fewer younger constructors; and because all constructors are wary of using references that may not stand the test of time. I hope I'll be able to identify Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler as readily as I can John Lennon and Ella Fitzgerald, without ever having to actually listen to them. Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise may take their places with Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood--at least in the experience of the movie-watching public. Or maybe not.

I generally don't tackle lyricrostics--I find what I don't know about movies or music too depressing. But, perhaps in bonus puzzles, I'd be glad to see what K Watkins can do with her knowledge of Shakespeare; just as sometime, I'd be glad to see what someone could do with all that television I wasted my youth on.

IX Addition - Jean W. Reno Looking at my own puzzles, I see that I must think proper nouns are always fair game, and when I thought about it, the answer was a resounding ALWAYS. Sure, I have lots of dislikes in this area, mostly because of my lack of any knowledge of the subjects. I know nothing of sports, little of Shakespeare & Broadway, and I certainly didn't have a classical education. However, I have used sports clues, Shakespearean clues, etc. My rule seems to be ONE. You may use one from any special genre. If I open a puzzle to find all Shakespeare, or all sports, you may rest assured I will close it immediately.

I find Sue's comments on some of my music clues hilarious. I am talking about song lyrics, titles, or singers that are so famous that I didn't think twice about using them, only to be brought up short. "Yesterday when I was young...", "You light up my life...", and many more were not appreciated (lol). Since they have been blaring from radio stations for years, I considered them fair game (still do). Now Sue likes to hit me with Gilbert & Sullivan and the like. I am sure she considers them fair game. I cringe. I barely know there is such a team as Gilbert & Sullivan. I have never been privileged to see a show on Broadway..

What I am getting at here is that all of it is fair game. If I can't figure out a few Broadway clues if the rest of the puzzle is fair, then I shouldn't be doing double crostics. If you ignore my first few poor examples, my big pet peeve is made up phrases. I usually quit doing a puzzle as soon as I find one, because I know there will be more. If it continues, I just quit doing that constructor's puzzles. In the past I made some suggestions to people by email on how to fix the puzzle to delete the made up part. I found, to my astonishment, that some people actually think that it is clever to do this. A great constructor, Barry Tunick, set me straight on that way back. To paraphrase, here is his advice in two rules:

	Never use a made up phrase, ever.
	Never become so attached to a word or phrase that you won't delete it to make a better puzzle.  You can always use it in the next puzzle.

As to scientific terms, very esoteric words, etc., Sue loves them & I hate them, but we all use them when we are in a spot (except Mel & Julian). I usually only succumb when doing an all one length puzzle. My advice is to just keep the strange stuff to one per category and no more than three in an average length puzzle. I try to make sure I balance each horror with two easy clues. That was my two cents.

mail to: website (dblx@doublecrostic.com)    Home Page

Page copyright by Sue Gleason, August 22, 2006; last update: December 29,2008