Vol. 11, No. 2,553 - The American Reporter - January 5, 2005

Ink Soup
IOTA OKRA

by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
Seattle, Wash.

SEATTLE, Wash. –- My late Aunt Helen (RIP) gave me her recipe for what in fact she did – avoiding Alzheimer's. Do crossword puzzles, she said. "You never find me sitting here doing nothing." She was also addicted to any game show on TV, especially those involving word play. I once telephoned her in the hospital during her last illness, and she cut me short: "Get to the point, honey–my program is on."

As faithful readers will know, I have followed her advice with what might seem to some excessive zeal.

A day does not pass without my doing at least two crosswords, those in the New York Times and the Seattle Times. So far as I can tell, there is no progression in difficulty in the local paper, but that edited by Will Shortz goes from insultingly easy on Monday to (sometimes) impossibly hard on Saturday. Those with more money than brains can get the answers by telephoning the NYT at $1.20 a minute. I cannot of course tell you whether this works, since, brilliant pauper that I am, I've never tried it.

I am writing this on Monday, and all the old favorites are there: emu ("Down under bird"), okra ("Gumbo vegetable"), iota ("letter after theta") and elf ("Santa's little helper).

Today's puzzle in the local Times is, by contrast, a baffling mixture of the trite (ants, clued as "picnic pests") and the very hard (algid, "chilly").

The Seattle paper carries two other word games to which I am now addicted. Anagrams called "Jumbles," and a curious thing by David Ouellet called "Wonderword."

I have no idea what makes an anagram difficult or easy. Today PEXLE, SUMOY, and SLIRGY, all but unscrambled themselves: expel, mousy, and grisly. But it was only after a lot of pencil work that YORCAN gave up crayon. In the latter case, I could practically feel the beneficial electrical snapping in my brain.

One of my favorite writers, the late Vladimir Nabokov, was also fascinated by anagrams. He it was who has caused the serious word "episcopal" nearly always to call to my mind its silly anagram, "Pepsi Cola."

A computer program to which I resort as seldom as possible will give me the anagram of nearly everything. It is a relief to find that there is no anagram for my last name (which is in enough trouble already). But there are so many anagrams for Ink Soup that one can pick and choose. My favorite is: "I ok puns." The most disgusting is "oink pus."

It is hard to tell what is so satisfying about "Wonderword" and even harder to describe it. I thought that I might find some help in Tony Augarde's "Oxford Guide to Word Games" (1984), but it evidently too recent to be covered there.

It is a 15"x15" square of alphabetic characters apparently thrown down at random. But each of the words listed at the bottom can be found by circling the letters, which, in a dyslexic's nightmare, can proceed in any direction. The letters that remain uncircled form the "wonder word."

There is always a vague "theme" to which the words somehow relate. A recent theme was Jennifer Aniston, with words like "actress, friends, Ross," and so on. The wonder word answer was "Brad Pitt," whoever that is.

Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.