Why solving crosswords makes you feel so good

PUBLISHED: 18:29 02 December 2017

There's no denying the sense of achievement when that last solution is pencilled in...

There's no denying the sense of achievement when that last solution is pencilled in...


Enthusiasts maintain that there is nothing like a good crossword puzzle to sharpen the wits and keep the brain athletic and supple. Others contend that there are better ways of spending one’s leisure moments.

It was a crossword puzzle that was instrumental in teaching me what a gastropod is. I had always had a vague idea that it as a portly man with a pain in the stomach, but when I looked it up in a dictionary I discovered that it was a member of the gastropoda, a class of asymmetrical molluscs in which the foot is broad and flat, the mantle undivided and the shell in one piece, usually conical - limpets, whelks, snails, etc. I had never realised that snails had feet - and flat ones at that - or mantles; which just shows what a harvest of information you can pick up from solving crosswords.

I refer of course to the puzzles in the more mentally elevated papers, and not to those which offer the successful solver a holiday in the Bahamas, a sports car, a dinner with a film star or similar delectable reward. Puzzles of this latter kind are usually half completed for you and all you have to do is decide whether a four-legged animal of three letters, ending with an “a” and a “t” is a rat or a cat, and so on. These are in fact little different from lotteries, and no crossword puzzle enthusiast worth his salt wastes any time on them.

For solving the other type of crossword you are unlikely to win anything more valuable than a book token or a pack of playing cards, but the attraction is not in the prize, if any, but in the sense of achievement you get from working the thing out. Whether such labour does you much good, apart from giving you the doubtful advantage of knowing what gastropods are, is open to argument.

Some people maintain that the time would be far better spent in reading an improving book like “I Was Hitler’s Nursemaid” or “How To Make £10,000 A Year Writing Greetings Card Verses,” but enthusiasts contend that there is nothing like a good crossword puzzle to sharpen the wits and keep the brain athletic and supple. And if you have ever travelled on one of those trains that cart Some-things-in-the-City to and from work you will have seen no end of them limbering up the grey matter on such cerebral vaulting horses as “The smith is not the only one who can forge this,” and “A sweet disorder in the dress . . . in clothes a wantonness. (Herrick )”. The answers to which problems, I should perhaps add for the benefit of strangers in this line of country, are “ahead” and “kindles.”

I have never to my certain knowledge met a crossword puzzle compiler, but I have a picture of one in my mind. He is a professional type with greyish, wispy hair and a faraway look in his eye, rather like the White Knight, and he approaches every subject by the most devious and confusing route it is possible to imagine. When his wife asks him what he would like for breakfast he doesn’t answer straightforwardly, “corn flakes” or “porridge,” but “Cereal falls away in scales” or “’Orrid Peg (anag.)”, and the poor woman has to work it out for herself.

Similarly, when he goes to the grocer’s he never asks for dried prunes but for dessicated orchard product of warmer climes formerly employed to improve the elocution of refined young ladies. One can imagine the conversation.

“According to some he wrote plays attributed to Stratford swan,” says the compiler.

He is an old customer, and the grocer, no fool, is on to this like a flash. “Bacon? Half a pound of the usual streaky? Very good, sir.”

“A hen is only a blank’s way of making another blank. (Samuel Butler).”

“Eggs? A dozen, sir?”

“Words yielding easily to pressure spread none of this on carrot-like root vegetable.”

“Butter? New Zealand or Danish?”

When it comes to presenting the bill the grocer gets a little of his own back. “In Gallic lands it might be volume of bound leaves.”

The compiler’s brain clicks into gear. “Volume - book - livre - pound.” He hands over the money.

Of course I could be altogether wrong. Crossword puzzle men may be ex-Army officers or retired jockeys for all I know; but I prefer to think of them as snuffy, ink-stained characters forever wandering around in a mental maze and never using one word where 20 can convey their meaning more obscurely. And when two of them get together the conversation proceeds in an erudite species of thieves’ cant in which the drift is hidden under a web of misleading sentences.

“Bad antonym qualifies time of Phoebus’s rising.”

“Old British admiral precedes 18th and 21st letters.”

That may not be quite how they say “Good morning,” and “How are you?”, but it would be rather pleasant to think that it was. After all, as everybody knows, variety is the blank of life.

James Pattinson has several of his 104 novels re-released as ebooks, currently being sold on Amazon. The latest two titles, published by Endeavour Press, are The Unknown and A Fatal Errand.

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