Spoiler Saturday: Transformational Crosswords
A different sort of algebra.
Note: Some of this material is recycled from my earlier book, On Crosswords.
For much of their history, crosswords took all their words and phrases from dictionaries or elsewhere in the newspaper. It was Merl Reagle in the 1980s, I believe, who started tinkering with a different way of doing things, and his idea became part of the crossword vocabulary just about everywhere.
Merl’s innovation was to change the puzzle’s longest entries in a consistent way. Generally, his approach means taking one word in a well-known phrase and turning it into another word, resulting in the whole phrase going silly, then repeating that process according to a well-defined rule. Discovering that rule is part of the fun.
For example, adding the formula for salt, NaCl, could transform BARE-CHESTED, SCOTCH PINES, and FANNIE MAES to theme entries BARNACLE-CHESTED, SCOTCH PINNACLES, and FANNIE MANACLES, as in Michael Torch’s “add a pinch of salt” puzzle linked here. There aren’t many more options, but a bigger puzzle could round things out by turning RADIAN and PASTOR to RAD IN A CLAN and PA’S TORN ACL. You can imagine the goofy clues that would hint at these answers.
You can do themed additions too, such as Brendan Emmett Quigley’s “What’s The Hub, Bub?” GALAXY PRIDE, SORDID CAESAR, CALGARY GRANT, and ATLAS NEEDED all result from the insertion of three-letter codes for major airports in the U.S., or “hubs.”
More subtly, this recent NYT puzzle inserts capital cities into key answers to make them into other answers, but clues them as if they were untransformed. The center answers CAPITAL and GAINS give the game away. TIMES becomes TIMBERLINES, MOS (methods of operation) becomes MOSQUITO, and so on for LBOS, BAE, TONI, and HE’S, becoming LOS LOBOS, BAKING STONE, RIGATONI, and PARISHES.
Addition is not the only operation that can be performed on such puzzles. One can subtract, as I subtracted ETs from my sci-fi themed puzzle “Aliens Go Home,” leading to the theme entries BUCK LIST, SPACE CAD, PLAN EATER, TICK PUNCH, COSMIC SURGERIES, and FROM HERO…ETERNITY. As a bonus, the theme entries all related to sci-fi even without the ET connection, and the original phrase PLANET EATER was from sci-fi, too. And the last clue made reference to the fact that one “ET” had stayed behind, remaining in ETERNITY.
Subtraction puzzles are a little harder than addition puzzles, all other things being equal. It’s easier to see what’s in the grid that shouldn’t be there than to see what should be there but isn’t. So I made sure the other things were not equal, broadly hinting with the “Aliens Go Home” title that we would see most “ETs” disappear, just like E.T. did in that movie a few people saw in the ’80s.
Merl himself did a puzzle about subtracting sounds, turning the “kw” of q into a “w” sound and respelling as necessary: WYATT ON THE SET, THE WICKER PICKER UPPER, HERE A WHACK…THERE A WHACK, SOME ASSEMBLY REWIRED, FEELING A LITTLE WHEEZY, PORCUPINE WILL.
Beyond addition and subtraction, there’s a more straight-up sort of transformation. You could do an “and/or” themed puzzle in which some of the theme entries substitute ORs for ANDs—RUNNING ERRORS, STORING OVATION, BORED TOGETHER—and some ANDs for ORs—THE BANDING COMPANY, STANDING NUTS, ERRAND MESSAGE.
And you can do more varied transformations as long as they follow an identifiable rule. For instance, if your theme is “transforming heroes,” you could try BOY MUSIC FINDER, FLIGHT OF THE CAR, and “SLEEP, BANK CLERK” (What a robber says while trying to hypnotize his way to an easy heist?), referencing the transforming heroes Shazam, Bumblebee, and the Mask, respectively.
You don’t see this kind of thing in regular or Sunday-sized puzzles quite as much as you used to. And you almost never see it in mini or midi-sized ones, which are a lot more prominent than they were ten years ago…so all in all, this kind of trickery has lost some ground.
Still, it’s a big part of crossword tradition, and I knew I wanted to do at least one grid in the Ubercross Abecedaria that played with it.
In the end, I did two, but IJ is the first. Next time out, I’ll talk more about the particular challenges of doing transformation on such a large scale. ’Til then…