About twice a week, I can ace the daily crossword puzzle, fill in every square. And in ink. When that happens, I casually leave it lying around to amaze anyone who might drop in. (Those who don't do crossword puzzles are intimidated by those who do, and I enjoy cashing in on the advantage.)
"You do them in ink!" is the awed reaction I want, followed by, "You must have a tremendous vocabulary."
I smile condescendingly and mutter, "Great waste of time," or "Dreadful addiction." Then I drop the paper in the wastebasket--before they see that 32 down: South African beetle has three "E's" in the middle where something went wrong with 38 across: Pen name of an Ecuadorean poet.
But I never explain that a large vocabulary is totally unrelated to crossword-puzzle solutions, as is knowledge of the arts, sports, geography, current events and science. All you need is a knowledge of puzzle language, which bears no relation to the spoken word or even to the modern world.
When did you last hear a conversation sparkling with references to eels, erns, terns, etuis, esnes, smews and ret? Which are, in order given, teleost fish, wading birds (both erns and terns), needle cases, Anglo-Saxon laborers, hooded mergansers and soak flax. All puzzle regulars.
Does your social circle frequently discuss orts, aits, olios, ollas, oasts and aloes? (Sequentially, table scraps, river islands, stews, pots, baking chambers and lilies--sometimes medicinal plant.)
A movie dog is always Asta, from "The Thin Man." Forget Lassie, Benjie and any other mutt that has wagged a tail in the movies in the past 50 years.
And there is no Astaire but Adele. Fred never, never appears. Similarly, there is no Pavarotti, Scotto, Price, or Domingo for opera star. It is Alma, as in Gluck, who sang her last Nedda somewhere around 1920. Movie star is apt to be Bara (Theda) of the same era. Garbo is about as contemporary as you'll find in the little squares, except for an occasional Ida (Lupino). Arlo is big, but not Woody.
Alan Alda is the favorite TV star. And somebody named Verdugo (Elena) crops up frequently among the clues. That is the only place I have ever encountered her--which, I suppose, shows my ignorance.
Of sports figures, Ashe and Aaron far outdistance all others. And the Mets win about once a week.
There are two favorite educational institutions: Eton, which doubles as a collar and jacket, and Yale, chummily, Eli. But Harvard, Princeton, Amherst, Stanford, Cambridge might as well not exist.
Singing voices are usually bass or alto, with an occasional tenor, but never soprano, baritone or contralto.
Literary tastes also are arbitrary. Wouldn't you think that Melville opus would be Moby Dick? Oh no. Melville is known in this ne'er (poetic contraction) ne'er world as the author of Omoo. Jane Austen wrote only Emma. And Lamb always stands for Elia, his pen name as an essayist. Poet Pound frequently gets a nod--usually in the lower right-hand corner--as Ezra. Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Frost, Sandburg, and, for the most part, Shakespeare, are all ignored.
But the clues are replete with the Fates, the Furies, mythology and Ate's mother, who turns out to be Eris, whoever she is.
English rivers are always four-letter words: Avon, Tyne, Ouse, Tees. The Thames is nonexistent. Rivers of France, on the other hand, always have five letters: Somme, Sao ne, Loire, Seine, Rhone, Marne and Aisne. Then there's that funny little river in Switzerland, the Aar (Something's wrong: I've got two "A's" together!), and you think you've erred. (People in the crossword-puzzle world are constantly erring and ruing, never sinning and being sorry.)
It's safe to put in Ural or Aral every time a clue calls for Soviet mountain range, gulf, sea, river, anything geographic. It's always one or the other.
Baltic feeder, though, is as unfathomable to me as oak-bark extract or Ugandan cockroach and has to work itself out from surrounding words. I used to think it was some kind of bird. Now I find it means a river that flows into the Baltic Sea, a complex body of water bordered by Germany, Poland, Russia, Finland and Sweden, each having at least a dozen Baltic feeders.
The clues that infuriate me are 27 down: See 62 across, and 62 across: See 27 down. Or Colette's love. How am I supposed to know the names of all of Colette's lovers? Then it turns out to be amor (they love to throw in a few foreign words, like ete' for Dieppe hot season, casa for Senora's room). And who would think that Eat would be erode?
The most long-lasting aggravation has been Parseghian. What's a Parseghian? A Parseghian is an Ara. What's an Ara? A Turkish water pipe?
One day I raged about Parseghian to a fellow addict. I felt that her uncontrolled laughter was in poor taste. Between gasps for breath she informed me that Ara Parseghian is the former football coach at Notre Dame.
That's the kind of thing that convinces me I'm out of my depth. They would know what a Zinkes is, I say to myself when completely stumped.
But then when I easily write in seacoot for Guillemot, or hemo for blood, comb., I wonder how Nan or Joe or Rufe can ever do the crossword puzzles they claim to do, when they obviously know so much less than I do. Maybe they cheat.
Purists think you cheat if you use a crossword-puzzle dictionary in addition to standard reference books. I hide mine whenever Pat comes over.
Over the years I have picked up enough of the lingua franca of the crossword-puzzle world to put together a sma (Kiltie's tiny) story, which, if it proves anything, destroys the myth that this addiction improves the vocabulary. Clues are sprinkled throughout the above. Anyone who retches at this sort of exercise in obfuscation can go soak flax (ret).
The Sma Tale*
"Alas," averred the esne, "a smew has alit among the aloes and eroded the orts from the olio that spilt out of the olla onto the stoa!"
"The olio just out of the oast?" posed my ami when he espied the melee. Less asea than I, who in the ado had dropped my etui, he hied into the casa for the bezom.
"Asta will ail without his orts," I asserted. "And our ensile is empty."
"Cease aching," advised my amor. "Next ete'--maybe in Juin--we will trek to a sma spa on an ait in the Urals, where the smews retreat into their aeries, and only the eels are eerie."
Anon, we were elated when Adele and Alan and Arlo rode up in their Reo. We all perched on the stoa swilling ades and ale, ogling the emmets inching over the ogees.