Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Agog at Evil Oxen

In the tradition of “Diary of a Crossword Fiend” and other crossword puzzle blogs I heard about at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament back in February (as well as the official NYT Crossword blog), I am finally getting around to starting to blog sporadically about my own crossword puzzling. This may or may not be a daily thing; as with most things, we’ll see.

By the way, if you routinely do any of these puzzles and have not done them yet, be forewarned—there be spoilers here! I should do a “below the fold/read more” kind of thing, but I’m lazy.

There are generally three puzzles I do each day. Today, my times were:

New York Times: 8:40
L.A. Times: 7:14
CrosSynergy (Washington Post): 5:59

I don’t really try for speed.

Today is a Wednesday (I think...yes, it is), which means a mildly difficult New York Times puzzle. It is by veteran Richard Silvestri, who usually injects a fair amount of humor into his puzzles. It took me a while to glom onto the theme; the first theme entry was clued “One who plunders boatloads of jack o’lanterns?” and the answer was PUMPKIN PIRATE. Okay... The second theme entry was clued “First-rate chastisement?” and the answer was SUPREME BERATING. Still didn’t get it; I’m fairly dim today. The third and final theme entry was clued “Nickname for an unpredictable Communist?” ERRATIC THE RED. Aha! ERIC THE RED with RAT inserted. Ah, then theme entry #1 was PUMPKIN PIE with RAT in it (I’ll have the pumpkin pie without so much rat in it...wasn’t that a Monty Python sketch?) and #2 was SUPREME BEING with a RAT in it. An odd theology, that. Anyway, 58 Down explains what’s going on: “Chinese calendar animal...or the key to this puzzle’s theme.” Ah...and 59 Down is RAT. Curiously, this isn’t actually the Year of the Rat (except in Ft. Lauderdale, I am led to understand...); it’s the Year of the Tiger, which is better than “The Eye of the Tiger.” The last Year of the Rat was 2008. Al Stewart’s “The Year of the Cat” was released in 1976.

Elsewhere in the Times puzzle, the ALOU baseball family appears again, but there aren’t too many of the “old regular” entries one comes across all the time today. Some witty clues: “Fall preceder” (PRIDE), “It’s game” (TAG), “Ship of fuels” (TANKER), and something I did not know: “What ‘........’ means to a typesetter” (STET). Or, as we used to say in magazine publishing, “never let them see you stet.” And what did Cervantes call “The tongue of the mind”? PEN.

The theme answers of Donna S. Levin’s Los Angeles Times puzzle were 16 Across “Extremely defensive state of mind” (BUNKER MENTALITY); 30 Across “Physical play” (ROUGH HOUSE); 39 Across “Abstinent one” (TEETOTALLER); 54 Across “Sam-I-Am’s story” (GREEN EGGS AND HAM). The theme? As 60 Across explains, “This puzzle’s theme—according to Twain, it’s ‘a good walk spoiled’” (GOLF). Yes, that line is just too too Twain.

Interesting thing about the word “teetotaler.” For many many years, I thought (despite the spelling) that it derived etymologically from preferring tea over booze—that is, non-alcoholic beverages. However, I learned in a Toastmasters meeting that it has an etymology not unlike D-Day. Says the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1834, possibly formed from total with a reduplication of the initial T- for emphasis (T-totally "totally," not in an abstinence sense, is recorded in Kentucky dialect from 1832 and is possibly older in Irish-Eng.). The use in temperance jargon was first noted Sept. 1833 in a speech advocating total abstinence (from beer as well as wine and liquor) by Richard "Dicky" Turner, a working-man from Preston, England.
Elsewhere in the L.A. Times puzzle, Giant Mel OTT makes one of his ubiquitous appearances (he would be, with the ALOUs, part of any crossword puzzler’s baseball all-star team, methinks). We can lower our cholesterol with 57 Across (OLEO), another “regular.” Once, BUTTER was an answer in a puzzle and I exclaimed “I can’t believe it’s not oleo!” “Drug in Shatner novels” is of course TEK.

Finally, Lynn Lempel’s WaPo puzzle is titled “Coat of Many Colors” and is rather a clever theme that works nice and symmetrically: “Like plumbing or carpentry jobs” (BLUE COLLAR), “Sign of hope amid the gloom” (SILVER LINING), “Still popular Elizabethan ballad” (GREENSLEEVES), and “Best Actor winner for ‘Sayonara’” (RED BUTTONS). It sounds like something they would have worn in the 1970s.

It has been long believed (even repeated by Rebecca Fraser in her excellent recent book The Story of Britain) that “Greensleeves” was originally written by Henry VIII as an attempt to woo Ann Boelyn. Others dispute the story (Alison Weir points out in her 2002 book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, that “Greensleeves” was written in an Italian style of composition that didn’t reach England until after Henry’s time, and of course it seems highly unlikely that Henry VIII would have written anything Elizabethan). Wikipedia tells us that
One possible interpretation of the lyrics is that Lady Green Sleeves was a promiscuous young woman and perhaps a prostitute. At the time, the word "green" had sexual connotations, most notably in the phrase "a green gown", a reference to the way that grass stains might be seen on a lady's dress if she had made love outside.
On her sleeves? Curious.

Anyway, elsewhere in the puzzle, we have two entries clued “The whole kit and caboodle,” 32 Across (ALL) and 40 Down (EVERY BIT). “Kit and caboodle”...there’s a phrase that sends me to the Online Etymology Dictionary:
"round wooden tub," 1275, probably from M.Du. kitte "jug, tankard, wooden container," of unknown origin. Meaning "collection of personal effects," especially for traveling (originally in ref. to a soldier), is from 1785; that of "outfit of tools for a workman" is from 1851. Kit and caboodle is 1861, from boodle "lot, collection," perhaps from Du. boedel "property."
That answers that. The crossword puzzle mecca of ENID is clued today as “Present-day Oklahoma city on the old Chisholm Trail.” RHEA is clued as “Actress Perlman with an ostrich-like namesake.” I guess it depends on whether you are a Cheers fan or an ostrich fancier. Or perhaps both, of you’re that much of a Renaissance man/woman.

It’s always interesting (and I use a hitherto unknown definition of “interesting,” it would seem) when the same word appears in more than one puzzle on the same day. Today, we had OXEN in both the NY Times and the LA Times, and AGOG and EVIL in both the LA Times and WaPo. I'm often agog at evil oxen.

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